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Saturday, August 04, 2007

The Life of Brian...

I will put a Keep the Beat post up soon - it was an amazing event - a group of 16 and 17 year old girls brought together more than 1,000 people for 10 hours of live music ... and raised more than $8,000 for War Child. Yes!

My friend and former Red Cross colleague Brian lives in a most beautiful place on the ocean in Nova Scotia. He also writes and asks very interesting questions. He sent me the email below ... and I thought I'd pass his question on to you too (with his permission). (I can already see Lindsay's brain warming up to this one...)

I recently read Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer. Perhaps you know it. It deals mainly with off-shoot Mormon fundamentalist branches (there are many) whose chief features seem to be paedophilia and the creation of faith systems to support that perversion and its attendant hypocrisies. (It was quite revolting to read.)

As I read, I began to notice that a lot of the identifying characteristics of these Mormon spin-offs are parallelled in the Christian fundamentalist churches and often find a place in a general way in the mainstream Republican conservative movement, (though not, I hasten to add, paedophilia). These social entities would claim no kinship with one another theologically, historically, politically or socially. I thought the Mormons weird, extreme and stupid, so I was surprised to recognize so much of their strangeness elsewhere. I am not surprised that Christian fundamentalists are weird, just that they are weird in many of the same ways as Mormons.

Here are some of the common themes I found:

First, anti-intellectualism. There is an almost universal denial of science, and the elevation of belief over fact, and sometimes a denigration of knowledge in general. There is rejection without debate of any objection, or even questions relating to matters of faith. To suggest that there is anything that is not perfect is to call into question the foundation of the whole edifice. It seems that in all cases the fall back position in terms of knowing ‘what to believe and how to behave’ is an individualistic interpretations of ambiguous historical writings. (In the case of Republicans, just think of the Constitution.) In all areas of behaviour obedience is demanded, not understanding, (with the consequent dilemma: how can you know what is demanded unless you have some understanding of it?) These features may be common to most religions, but as we go on, other things begin to emerge and it gets more interesting.

Individual rights. There generally exists a belief in the domination of individual rights over community rights which is often evidenced in a denial of the authority of the state. The God given right, and it is God given in most cases, to use force, most boldly characterized by support of the right of the individual to carry and, in the event of opposition by others, to use a gun. In many ways this is parallelled in US foreign policy.

Individual rights issues have a couple of sub-themes. First is the notion of male dominance in family relationships, usually with the rest of the family having duties to the ‘head of the family’ and he having different and often fewer duties to them. The common rejection of abortion is an easily identified further example. (Usually expressed in terms of the rights of the foetus, but actually flowing, I believe, from the evolutionary value for the male in having his genetic line maintained.) The other off shoot is a rejection of ‘otherness’. This is noteworthy in strong homophobia and its companion, hatred of same-sex marriage, and is further evident in varieties of racism and a general xenophobia.

Finally, I noted materialism. There seems to be a common belief in the positive value of material things, to the extent that God’s pleasure can be measured by one’s material success. As a consequence there is commitment to the values of hard work, honesty, and commitment at the expense of creativity, relaxation, and undeserved pleasure.

It seems to me that narcissism is a factor common to all of the above. They all serve to elevate self and self interest above any and all competitors. So why, I asked myself, do these different belief systems all promote narcissism? Then came the aha moment. The religions do not promote narcissism. The narcissism promotes the religions. Mormonism, Pentecostalism (et al), and Republicanism do not cause people to be narcissistic. Those are simply different ways to exercise that same psychology. It is their narcissism that causes them to create and promulgate these faiths.

Okay, now here is my real question: What the hell is it that makes so many Americans so self-important (not all of course)? I know that some of this seeps over the border and infects us, but it appears to have its genesis to the south. I seem to remember reading about the frontier experience having a strong influence on U.S. character. Maybe that is part of the answer. Have you read anything that addresses this issue?

Hello, Gary.
A few observations here, probably not so much in the way of conclusions.

First, "anti-intellectualism" is somewhat inaccurate. It would be, more or less, "psuedo-intellectualism," in the more literal rather than colloquial sense of the word. These groups tend to have an intellectual basis, though it is radically different from accepted knowledge.
For example, Farrakhan's teaching regarding the Number of the Beast, 666, is that this relates to Satan's creation of the white race. 600 people, in so many generations, and I forget what the other number is supposed to mean. Now, the idea that reference to 666 is to be found in the book of Revelations, which is found in the New Testament, which is not accepted scripture of Islam is not to be noticed, or immediately discounted.
One of the practical functions of this is to insulate the body of ideas as a whole from tests of falsification.
For example, the Nation of Islam teaching is that the true meaning of the word "democracy" is "rule by demons (whites)," derived from the Greek words demos (demons, meaning whites) and cracy (to rule). Should it ever be pointed out the the Greek word for "demon" was daimon, then this is explained away by stating that only books (written by whites) state this, which proves the deceitful nature of the white devils, as they sought to hide their demonic nature.

The issue of individual rights is more properly a deference to the concept of subsidiarity, which, oddly enough, is predominant in Catholic thought. Sphere sovereignty is more prevalent in protestant thought, yet there is this particular distinction of subsidiarity among these groups.

Materialism is also improperly named, as this is closely associated with positivism, which is antithesis to these groups. I believe Budziszewski's nomenclature of "mammonism" and "meritism" describe this phenomenon more accurately.

Now, it should also be noted, as was done in passing in the post, that there exists secular movements as well as religious movement which demonstrate these characteristics.
Though there might be older, more venerated thinkers that wrote of such things, in the contemporary US, by far the majority of these types would be adherents or derivatives of Ayn Rand and the Chicago School of Economics, as was Alan Greenspan.
wow..talk about an interesting subject. And PT, what an awesome, sink in your teeth kinda answer. As an emigrated Dutch person to Canada, since emigrated to the US (with an inbetween stop over to Saudi Arabia), I have to say that isolationism has got to be part of it. Literally geographically, and historically. The history of the US is different than Canada with continuing ties and identification with Britain that in essence whatever it is that developed in the US (doctrines, intellectualisms of whichever kind) and most importantly economically, this difference in outlook and attitude was easy to establish. Does that make sense? Of course I do not have as much historical knowledge and economical history as PT , but that would be my first thought.
alright, that's all the intellectual engagement I can muster.. I'm headin' the fort alone and I have to bark at my brood to get ready for bed...
(bark bark bark bark...)
PT - your brain is operating at a level I need to work at, but I get some of it and will struggle with the rest. Ingrid, I do understand your barking at the brood and your insights.

I suggested that Brain look at Howard Zinn's books because they tackle so much American mythology. I went to school in the formative years in Michigan and I was saturated with some of these myths by 7th Grade.

Americans as a people are among the least traveled in the affluent world - this is a factor in their collective viewpoint as well.

And finally (for now)... the media doesn't do citizens any favours. Info-tainment and if it bleeds, it leads...

God Bless em!

(Brian, you can post as ANONYMOUS and sign or not if you want to jump in anytime).
I meant Brian, not 'Brain' in my note above - when referring to my friend, not when referring to what's in PT's head.
Is it narcissism that makes us Americans the way we are? Maybe.
That and a large dose of "me and mine and to hell with everyone else" greed.
WHat came to mind about the anit-intellectualism notion was the televised discussion surrounding the supposed finding of the tomb of Jesus and possibly his family.

I recall listening to the discussion, and questions anturally come up: how can you deny the likelihood? How does physical ascension fit with bones/bodily evidence? And so on.

In the end, there is an impasse on things from dinosaurs to literal interpretation because there are very few ways to reconcile these ideas. Some have tried, offering a less literal view, even offering a metaphorica view. But still, there are those who seem to think that yielding on a science based challenge consitutes some kind of tumbling down.

This defiance I think turns many people away from faith, people who just find science to be unrefutable and want inteelectual flexibility in environments where nonce will be had.

As for narcissism- well, I think self aggrandization has its true roots in our fear of mortality but on a practical level I think Tina is right.
There is a begrudging nature in America, an unwillingness to sacrifice and a departure from any social ethic. We see environmental degradation- how does that jive with respecting God?

Anyway Gary I dont want to be a comment hog, so I will shut up and see what others think. Its just hard to pick what aspect of the question to grab.

I think the anti0intellectualism apspect helps them deal with challenge, knowledge is demonized then by extension, discouraged. Challenge is suppressed. All features of obedience.
Wow my typing is lousy, I admit I am not wearing my glasses tonight. SO sorry.
I don't have anything so organized as a sequential train of thought, just some random conjecture.

America really came into being (from a euro perspective) during the Industrial Revolution, and in the midst of a booming slave-trade. I'm wondering if those two factors both lent themselves to formulating a society that views work as something that ought to be done by something/someone else, and that We The People should be able to expect the goods and services at the expense of a faceless (and therefore unimportant) other.

Come to think of it, I wonder if a country founded (again, from a euro perspective) by people of a personal-salvation religion could be anything except self-centred. I was raised in that, and it certainly tends to engender a fascination with Me and My Soul.

And in that same vein, a country founded by people of that religious bent running from persecution - well, I guess it would be a natural following that they'd have a generous helping of circle-the-wagons mentality.

It's an interesting idea to me, that the first moments of a particular history can have such long-reaching implications in a country's flavour. Don't know if it's real or not, but now I want to go off in a corner and think about Canada and her Big Bang.

Sorry if I'm blithering, it's late and I'm strung out on caffeine. My wicked children forced me to drink a cola Slurpee.
I think the problems Brian comments flow on naturally in relation to fundamentalist religions and their basis rooted in that faith. Who can deny faith is subjective, unlikely, irrational, and transcends the argument…but Kant concluded that moral arguments need not arise from statements, morality need not be confined to the consequences of its actions to determine its moral worth, hence you can have the idea of something that is universally good, as apposed to one whose actions are considered virtuous by virtue of their outcome. Kant further contended knowledge or objects are as they are or as they appear in phenomena, but are rationally contingent, hence he denies metaphysics (explaining the ultimate nature of being) other than by way of a priori (knowledge is independent of experience) form of our sensibility.

Other philosophers combine the idea of a historical Jesus who was as a humanitarian social reformer with the rationalist ethics of Kant. Needless to say we all remain fallible, and essentially I think need to remain humble to new discoveries and different ways of thinking.
The Gospel writers were philosophers and astronomers, later versions such as the Gospel of John had to contend with the problem of Paul who thought the end of the world was nigh for his generation. All of this was only written down after much debate and discussion. Now hijacked to suit politics and the necessity to be "right”: interpretations from the writings of mystics who were both philosophers and astronomers. We need to follow in their footsteps.

My own simplistic faith is based upon the necessity of god for our ethics to make some sense. If we are to strive to do good, to be compassionate and to uphold and to show reverence to all life requires I think a belief in the divine, combined with our will to live. Those who are part of the fundamentalist movement act in insular and undoubting rigid belief system in the world and in history as Brian has portrayed.

Best wishes
I see Brian has met my father.
Wow - interesting comments (and spelling to Lynn - adds to the discussion).

Madcap - I'd like to think about Canada's psyche origins too - I think it's a combination of looking south and seeing the 'land of the free' and looking over our shoulders and seeing the Queen and her ancestors. We're so happy to be special, but we're oh so nice too!

Lindsay, I appreciate your description of your faith (and respect it too). I believe the moral and ethical compass I need does not require belief in god, but wouldn't deny the historical legacies of that belief that reside in my somewhere.

nvisible - let's get Brian and your father together, maybe they can sort this out...
The founders of America believed foremost in Liberty.

Organized religion was despised by many such as Thomas Jefferson.

Enlightenment writers such as Rousseau and Voltaire were an influence.

The French Revolution was inspired by America.
I wrote extensively a while back on the narcissism of fundamentalist Christianity and American society in general so no argument with me there.

I think Madcap is right that America having come into existence during the industrial revolution has a lot to do with the problem. But we American's tend to be workaholics thanks to our puritan background so I don't think it is accurate to assume we want others to do the work for us. Part of the reason we don't travel is because we get so little time off! (And even when we have time off, we don't necessarily use it.)

Also, a very large portion of America is made up of the children of former slaves and immigrant workers - many of whom are now fundamentalist Christians.

I think we have to stop and look at what it is the fundamentalists are saying. They aren't totally insane. Fundamentalism (like America) came into being with the industrial revolution, (as did Mormonism). And what the majority of fundamentalism rejects is, I think, somewhat valid. Traditional values are being thrown out the window and people feel cornered and rightly believe their values are being threatened. Whether you agree with their values or not is a different matter. The fact that they feel cornered is what makes them feel like they have to hold to them so fanatically. The world exclaiming that we have to put an end to all religion and "fanaticism" just makes people cling to their belief systems that much harder and makes things that much worse. I understand the name calling and the finger pointing. But I don't think it is particularly helpful in bringing about the changes people want to make happen.

It's like we aren't even speaking the same language, you know? Whose going to break through that? It's not going to be the fundamentalists, I can guarantee you that. But if we are going to put an end to fundamentalism and American narcissism, then we have to somehow figure out how to communicate with it because right now, there is no communication going on whatsoever. It's all just a bunch of "us" and "them" mentality which is exactly what everyone dislikes about fundamentalism in the first place.

OK - well, you know. My soap box. Thanks for letting me get on it. :)
Good points Bohemian - I think the founding principles have been distorted and were amazing.

Laura - nice to hear from you! ANd you are so right...people on each side of this (and other divides) need to find a way to listen and eventually see the humaness in each other - then maybe there can be some common ground and change. It's hard though, isn't it?

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