Monday, June 25, 2007

Gnostics: You are a Religion too!

We talk a lot about Gnostics at this blog, but it's a concept not everyone is yet familiar with. So I thought I'd post this picture of an apparent Gnostic I just came across in reading the news:

The story is titled Supreme Court nixes suit over faith-based plan and we learn that:
Co-founder Annie Laurie Gaylor has helped transform the Freedom From Religion Foundation into the nation's largest group of atheists and agnostics, with a fast-rising membership and increasing legal clout.... [But]

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that ordinary taxpayers [i.e. organized atheists and agnostics] cannot challenge a White House initiative that helps religious charities get a share of federal money.

The 5-4 decision blocks a lawsuit by a group of atheists and agnostics against eight Bush administration officials including the head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

The taxpayers' group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation Inc., objected to government conferences in which administration officials encourage religious charities to apply for federal grants.
With the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, President Bush says he wants to level the playing field. Religious charities and secular charities should compete for government money on an equal footing.
Now I have no problem with constitutional arrangements that separate church and state, but taking the church out of the governing institutions does not mean taking the church out of civil society. But, I hear some people saying, having churches play a role in civil society and having the government fund this role are two very different matters. Why should taxpayers pay to support churches?

Well, the answer is that because once you have a government that takes it upon itself to levy huge taxes and have a hand in funding all manner of activities in "civil society", so that there are relatively few social or educational programs in the nation that are not in some way touched by government funding, you are left with the choice of either a totalitarian state telling everyone what to think or do, or a state that contracts with all kinds who can meet basic standards and requirements in their own way.

The alternative, of course, would be to have a society in which the state taxes and redistributes much less, and leaves people the responsibility of privately organizing, regulating, and funding civil society and commercial groups to take care of certain social needs, at least to the extent that private initiative can grow to the task (there would always have to be some state regulation). And yet, the historical reasons we don't live in such a world, while an outcome of complex events in the recent past, may be partly reduced to the idea that many of our historical forebears have not wanted to be part of a civil society in which churches played a strong role; rather, they wanted to be "secular", "modern" people who deferred to state-regulated and funded scientific "experts" to design social programs. The history of the twentieth century in North America illustrates just such a widespread development.

Historically, the outcome of wanting "freedom from religion" has been a movement towards a technocratic and somewhat totalitarian state, that is epitomized today by the European bureaucratic elites attempting to outlaw creationist ideas. But this belief in the need for a rule of experts who have the scientific knowledge to solve our social problems without recourse to traditional religious commitments, has not panned out if the goal has been to make a society relatively at peace with itself, happily reproducing itself in a strong commitment to future generations. Social science has not saved us from bad faith, and it has often made things worse.

This is because those who want "freedom from religion", i.e. freedom from something so inherently human, without asking why it is inherently human and respecting it on some level as such, are themselves trapped in an essentially religious gesture, without the benefit of knowing it and thus reflecting on it intelligently: it's analogous to the gesture of the high priest in some temple sacrifice who thinks that by casting out some scapegoat/evil (religion! go!), the community will be saved (as if the evil were not inherent in the human condition, and sure to return once the scapegoat is gone); or that of the magician/alchemist who has special knowledge which turns today's dross into some more enlightened gold.

In short, those who call for "freedom from religion" are Gnostics who believe that they have the special key that opens doors to the real truth, the real creation, that all the rest of us who are religiously sunk in some fallen human condition are too pig ignorant to appreciate. But, the truth is humans cannot really practise "freedom from religion", no more than they can practise freedom from economics or freedom from esthetics, or freedom from anything else fundamental to the anthropological nature of our partly transcendent human Being (look again at the photo above and note how the words "Freedom from Religion", not to mention the woman's body language, transcend the merely physical existence of a woman and a window). And the attempt to do so does not make one more reasonable and less indebted to ritualism or irrationality, but rather more so. It is always a choice of what kind of religion, economics, esthetics you are going to prefer. And you cannot thus escape the responsibility of asking what kind of religion and what kind of relationship between church and state, maximizes human goods like reason, freedom, and equality. To simply cry "freedom from religion" likely reveals you as an anthropologically not serious person with a rebellious adolescent personality. Unfortunately, such people largely rule the bureaucracies of today and can win four out of nine votes on the present American Supreme Court. No doubt they dominate the Canadian court.

By coincidence, Jim Kalb has a neat way of summing all this up on his blog today. He picks up a complaint of Barack Obama, the American presidential candidate:
Somehow, somewhere along the way, faith stopped being used to bring us together and started being used to drive us apart.
Kalb replies
The change is not so mysterious. In the 60s or thereabouts governing elites decisively rejected their residual connection to traditional Christianity, at bottom in the interests of a purer form of technocratic rule. The school prayer and abortion decisions mark the transition: the public order became purely secular and self-contained, and the value of human life became a matter of will, utility and technique. Once those things had happened any assertion of traditional views in public life became, from the official point of view, ipso facto heretical and schismatic (in current language, “extremist and divisive”). An average American would become an antisocial radical if he just stayed what he had always been and presented his views in public. And that’s why the divisive forces Senator Obama worries about suddenly appeared in our public life.
In other words, if we are called to attend to the culture war and the divisive politics of "religious fundamentalists", it is our duty to ask which divisive fundamentalists: the so-called "secular" Gnostics?

The secular, it turns out, is just another form of the sacred, and not necessarily a better one, just as a "foundation" may be just another word for "church".

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