Posted on June 27th, 2012 | Filed under Challenges, Featured, Interfaith, Intra-Faith, Popular Culture, Social Issues
Tagged with Atheism, chris hedges, david bowie, debbie wasserman schultz, deconversion, jimmy scott, leah libresco, Qur'an, theodore roosevelt
In ranking American presidents on the he-man macho scale, Theodore Roosevelt will score pretty high on almost any judge’s sheet. But when he talked about using the “bully pulpit,” he was using the first word in that phrase to mean “excellent,” like when David Bowie sang “Bully for you, chilly for me” (“good for you, bad for me,” roughly) in the song “Fame.”
What Roosevelt meant was that the position of the presidency gave him an advantage in raising issues for public debate that might go unaired if mentioned by people who weren’t president. Though he talked about speaking softly and carrying a big stick, the term “bully pulpit” had nothing to do with beating people over the head with a wooden structure in the White House briefing room.
We need more of the bully pulpit, less bullying from the pulpit.
Valerie Terico published a piece at AlterNet on May 27 of this year titled 8 Ways Christian Fundamentalists Make People Convert – to Agnosticism or Atheism. I recognized a lot of the trends she identified from my childhood, still others from my time moderating a daily newspaper’s web forums; there are cautionary tales to be found there for the religious leader who’s humble enough to look.
Part of the problem is not interfaith but intrafaith; when I was still going to a General Baptist church, I had a Southern Baptist acquaintance who was always trying to convert me to being a “real” Baptist. (At the time, the church I was attending was probably more conservative than his.)
We saw more “Mormons aren’t Christians” talk in the Republican primary process than we’ll see through November, I suspect. Most of those who used that line of attack against Mitt Romney will fall in line and support him, party loyalty trumping religious purity. And of course, it’s a two-way street there; while some LDS missionaries may be dispatched to isolated regions occupied by animists, others end up in Catholic neighborhoods or at a Methodist preacher’s door.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz was disinvited from speaking at Temple Israel in Miami in May after a member of the synagogue quit in protest. He had wanted a chance to rebut her speech if it touched on the state of Israel, and leaders had turned down his request.
The internal politics of the American Jewish community over Israel are as dangerous a minefield as I can imagine, making Catholics’ perspectives on birth control and abortion look genteel and unified. In both those cases, one side seems to see the other as members of a completely different faith.
The Qur’an mandates that “there shall be no compulsion in religion” (Qur’an 2.256) and later that “We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another” (Qur’an 49:13); the latter strikes me as a particularly beautiful sentiment, Babel in reverse.
Yet stories of apostasy trials pop up in the news from time to time, though I’d add that the news media has ignored plenty of parallel behavior; the news media sees Muslim communities as more safe to criticize than fundamentalist Christian churches or ultra-Orthodox Jewish enclaves. Women’s status in Islam is as complicated as it is in any of the other western monotheistic religions, though Ikhlas Saleem gets it right when she argues that much of the criticism of Islam’s treatment of women has a core of colonialism at its base.
These religions tend to talk to varying degrees about free will. Sin is defined by some as a misuse of free will to rebel against the will of God. Some secular forces say there’s no such thing as free will, that this is just another thing the superstitious religious folks got wrong a long time ago.
You would think, then, that the freethinker community would be the most supportive of a right for people to change their minds about religion with impunity. They’d almost have to be, right? They have the word “free” in their name, for Pete’s sake.
Sadly, you would be wrong. Blogger Leah Libresco recently announced that she plans to convert to Roman Catholicism after blogging for some time as an open atheist, and while the sky has not exactly fallen, the responses from her friends in the atheist community have been less than ebullient. “You're wrong” was one of the nicer replies; the notion that just about anything would be preferable to the Catholic Church was a recurring theme in articles I read.
Freethinkers are free to go wherever their questions about truth and meaning take them, it seems, as long as the path doesn’t lead up to a house of worship. I’ve written in the past about distancing myself from “movement atheism” (NSFW language at the link), and reactions like those faced by Leah Libresco at Patheos, or Ikhlas Saleem in this space, reinforce that instinct to cast off the scarlet letter A (for atheism, get your mind outta the gutter) I once wore proudly.
My beliefs on religion are evolving, as I’ve said before. I cannot speak as certainly on ultimate questions as I can on other matters: I believe The Wire is the greatest American television show ever made, I believe that a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup chased with a York Peppermint Patty is a legal psychedelic experience, I believe a classmate’s bumper sticker is right that “When Jesus said to love your enemies, he probably meant don’t kill them,” and I believe that while not Jewish, jazz singer Jimmy Scott is regardless one of those people whose life justifies our continuing existence as a species. And like Chris Hedges said: I don’t believe in atheists.
Warning: The citation of both Teddy Roosevelt and the former Ziggy Stardust in the same paragraph is recommended only for trained professionals. Image source for "Theodore Roosevelt laughing" is Tom (via Wikimedia Commons).
Tennessee native Jason R. Tippitt is pursuing a master of arts in theological studies at Andover Newton Theological School in the Boston area. He is a "religious independent" with an interest in collaborative efforts within, between, and beyond religious communities for the common good. Follow him on Twitter: @TippittJason