Not Gonna Bow to Your Idol

Continuing the PRRI information, I was very curious about the “Unaffiliated” category in American religion, which is second only to the aggregate White Christian sectors: Evangelical (17%); Mainline Protestant (13%), and; Catholic (11%). Unaffiliated now accounts for 24% of the population, but what exactly does the word mean? When “nones” first started showing up on American polls, we were fairly certain that it was a response to institutionalized religion, which is to say these were mostly the oft-demonized millennials who were “spiritual but not religious.” Turns out that category is less than 20% of the Unaffiliated demographic.

unaffiliated

The chart is great at pointing out that the explicitly religious are a sizable percentage of the Unaffiliated, but it’s less clear how people mean the words “secular” or “agnostic.” I know many Baptists who are also secularists, and many in the Americans United movement are outspoken secularists because they are strong proponents of church/state separation, but some are also Christian. My experience teaching religion class is that most of my agnostic students are simply people struggling to keep believing. It’s entirely possible that they will come back to faith, but that metaphysical inertia can last for years. The category is likely going to be hopelessly muddy until pollsters separate it into more meaningful segments and clearly define the terms.

Still, the numbers indicate a powerful and profound shift in American metaphysical claims, and as the position becomes more common and less marginalized, we can expect to see a much more robust and less aggressive form of atheism emerge, one that is not a reactionary position and therefore less zealous and angry.

As a side note, I still teach the term “agnostic,” but I tell students that it’s not of much use anymore. The classic term “skeptic” is far more accurate.

Y’all Need More Babies

Been trying to get to this for a while. PRRI released their American Values Report from 2016 recently, and I’ll have a few observations to make. For now, though, since the new semester is still kicking my ass, I thought I’d start with one of their most fascinating charts. This one details the percentage of each sect based on age group. If you look at white Protestants, it’s easy to see their future is bleak. Given that there really is no conversion growth in the U.S., combined with the impossible to determine future attrition rate of the youngest demographics, white Protestants are aging themselves out of relevance, if not existence. It’s worth asking, and I will in a later post, how the political posturing, the Trump support, and the Nashville Statement are helping to bring those numbers down.

chart

Monuments to Whiteness?

James Woods, the actor who was once a well-respected if creepy addition to many films and television programs, has helped me figure out how to talk about “white culture,” or as the fascists and crypto-fascists would have it, White European heritage. As Charlottesville has dominated the news cycle—rightly so—one component of it was lost for a minute but is now likely to be the rallying point for neo-Dixie movements like those who assembled in Virginia.

Why neo-Dixie? The monuments of the Civil War and Confederacy are going to be the totems of the loosely affiliated white power movements more than ever before. The attempt to remove a Confederate statue in Charlottesville was the proximate cause of the Unite the Right rally and seemingly inevitable violence. Already I’m seeing Cracker Twitter eaten up with discussions of monuments and statues and landmark names, and if you’re not familiar with the American South or even historically racist enclaves in Oklahoma (Tulsa), you should know that Southern whites have a strong affinity for the “heroes” of the Confederacy, especially when it comes to naming public schools. In fact, post Charlottesville, a group in Tulsa is circulating a petition to rename Lee Elementary.

lee

I should say that my experiences with these movements goes all the way back to 1988, when I spent some time with two members of the The Covenant, The Sword, and the Arm of the Lord. I was in Muskogee, Okla., and two of their number were being held at the federal detention center at the Muskogee County Jail while their codefendants stood trial for sedition in federal court in Arkansas. (They were acquitted.) I think the feds thought it best to keep the group scattered, as they were a particularly scary iteration of white power movements, having murdered at least one state trooper in Missouri, and if the gentlemen were to be believed, members of the LGBT community in North Carolina. The two members I interviewed over a two-week period were both former U.S. military officers with combat experience, or at least they said they were, and as the son of a career U.S. Army enlisted man, their talk had all the hallmarks of authenticity to me. They were also part of the Christian Identity Movement, and so their hatred for “ZOG” (the so-called Zionist Occupation Government) was combined with a religious zeal that was physically exhausting to be around for more than a few minutes at a time.

The neo-Dixie movements are going to avoid the worst religious components of Christian Identity going forward. You might convince average white folks that it’s okay to “love white culture, too,” but you’re not going to convince members of most Evangelical churches that Jews are actually fake Jews who are thoroughly evil and that the white race is the “real Israel.” Religion will be treated as part of our culture, part of our heritage, and indeed, it will be treated as a personal matter, but one on which most should at least agree that God is totally cool with all races but that all races should get to “celebrate” their heritage. God is, of course, totally cool with that, too.

The coded language has been around for a while, but as neo-Dixie movements achieve mainstream platforms, they will use the coded language far more regularly and eschew the nastier verbiage of their private thoughts and not-so-private meetings. Charlottesville has also had the effect of opening wider the Overton Window, such that terminology that has not been mainstreamed is suddenly crucial to understanding what the hell is happening. Many observers of the far Right believed that was Bannon’s intention all along, and it’s hard to find fault with their reasoning at this point.

But to James Woods…the tweet above has been rightly mocked on Twitter since Woods posted it yesterday. The idea that reasonable people cannot understand the difference between WWII soldiers engaged in a just war and the actions of treasonous Confederate troops is laughably stupid, except that in the current context in which all “truth” is a function of power and politics, such that competing claims are not measured on truth value but pragmatic value, the tweet seems reasonable and accurate to some on the far and not-so-far Right.

This will be the point of contention going forward: the totems of the Confederacy will be defined as monuments to “white heritage” or “white culture,” but that is nonsense, of course. Did no whites fight on the side of the Union? Did only whites fight the Civil War? Is there such a thing as “white heritage” (in the positive sense of the word; there is clearly a negative sense)? The monuments of the Confederacy are simply reminders that once upon a time a group of racist traitors engaged the legitimate government of the U.S. in a war of sedition. The rebellion was quashed, the Union remained intact, and the South immediately began trying to revive Dixie. The monuments need to go. It makes no good sense to keep monuments of the rebellion on public display. It ought to be offensive to all of us, not just African Americans. If, as the neo-Dixie spokespersons say, we ought to keep them around for historical value, then a museum is the perfect place for them, and they ought to be sources of shame for the South, not pride, a reminder that the myth of white supremacy once led people to rebel for the sake of the evil institution of slavery.

Finally, the monuments of our whiteness are everywhere. Our institutions favor whiteness, most of our schools favor whiteness, our statues and monuments celebrate whiteness and white people, our holidays (save one) commemorate whiteness, our entertainment industry is eaten up with whiteness; it is literally the foundation of the country, government, and culture. Only those who don’t think it’s not yet white enough, which is to say only white, will be daft enough to believe that the totems of the Confederacy are ought but the relics of hateful, violent, oppressive whiteness.

It’s the Noise

I wrote this after the inauguration, when it became clear that part of Trump’s strategy was to destroy any referential meaning of language. Not that I think it was his actual strategy at the level of cognitive awareness, as I’m certain at this point that he’s not smart enough to understand how language works.

Everything he does is intended to make it harder to know what is true and what is false, so there doesn’t have to be a pattern. A lie is as useful as the truth, but he will not prefer one to the other. The objective is confusion for the sake of power, not clarity. In this context, words are made powerful by making them meaningless, so repeating what he says, posting what he says, reporting what he says all contribute to the overall degradation of language and meaning.

That was January or February. I don’t want to scroll back through Facebook’s impossibly clunky navigation to find the specific date. At the time, it seemed clear that journalists were going to have to take a different tactic. I finished the above quote with this: “If he says something, report the truth without the lie.” I still think that’s important, but I didn’t count on one factor, and it’s the reason I’ve barely gotten anything written this month.

It’s the noise. Even good words get lost in this much noise. I know, because I’m trying to read good stuff, too, but the temptation is to say too much about what is happening, because thanks to his twitter and the circus that is his communications team, there is always something to say, and it’s not normal, day-to-day shit that needs to be said; it’s commentary on the absurd or the shocking or the vile or the bigoted. When the knob is always set to high, all language is functioning under too much pressure; we recoil from so much absurdity, and language that attempts to draw us back toward the truth is perceived as too much, overstated, exaggerated. We have already watched the degradation of truth in the context of Church and politics, such that now conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists can’t be bothered to challenge any pronouncement, any executive order, any outrage because Trump is their guy—is God’s guy.

What happens now is the competing truth claims will be stripped of the necessity of being truthful, and in the place of truthiness, we will embrace an agenda of linguistic pragmatism. If the words get what I want done done, then they are “the truth.” I have no idea how long we’ll cling to notions of truth, as we no longer have even the simulacra of truthfulness in political discourse, and now that evangelicals are abandoning truth in religious discourse, we are going to inherit a strange, strange world where the “will to power” will trump truth (sorry). It’s the dark half of Nietzsche’s vision of a world devoid of gods, and in answer to the madman’s question of what we will put in God’s place, the answer, as Nietzsche knew, was power. I’m certain he wouldn’t even be surprised that the Church was leading the charge toward its own corruption, nor would Dostoevsky, who knew a Church joined to a state apparatus no longer needs a Christ. Power fills the vacuum left by an absent Messiah, but the noise comes first.

Pastoral Conversion

First thing this morning, I saw Jonathan Merritt’s interview with Eugene Peterson, the headline of which was subtle:

Eugene Peterson on changing his mind about same-sex issues and marriage

No idea where that story is headed…

For the uninitiated, Eugene Peterson has been the rock-solid, boring, erudite, committed, faithful pastor that many pastors aspired to be. He founded a Presbyterian church in Maryland, and then pastored it for 29 years before retiring. He’s been a prolific writer, too, especially in the genre of pastoral literature.

I have to admit something embarrassing before proceeding, though. When I was a Christian, I read a ton of C.S. Lewis. I even took an undergrad class that focused on all the Narnia books, as well as his space trilogy. (The class was awesome; the space trilogy is terrible, especially when it devolves into lurid Arthurian nonsense in book three. Book two is sort of worth reading.)

     
For pastors, reading is both a survival mechanism—there are damn few people you can really talk to, after all—and an inspiration. All those sermon ideas have to come from somewhere, and books and movies are a good place to mine ideas. Lewis wrote “theology” so that people could feel smart and satisfied about choosing Christianity. They typically fall into the category of apologetics. Peterson’s books are in a different category, though, and I say this with respect: they are not the sort of books most church folks care to read. Peterson writes so that people act like Christians, a lost art form, for sure. That one of them is titled A Long Obedience in the Same Direction should tell you all you need to know about Peterson’s methodology vis-a-vis Christian behavior.

Eugene Peterson is the tortoise to the hare, and that is sort of what people should want in a pastor. Unfortunately, the world has not gone that way, and Peterson has rightly spoken out against “pastorpreneurs,” and how fucking great is that portmanteau? If you’re not a consumer of evangelical twitter, you probably missed the firestorm today. Peterson’s famous, easy-to-read translation of the Bible, called The Message, has been adopted by churches all over the U.S. and Canada, primarily because it is faithful to the message of the Bible without getting bogged down in Elizabethan English or religious constructions that are more faithful to ideology than a life lived. In what will come as a surprise to no one who is familiar with conservative evangelicals, Peterson has been disowned by notable church leaders, and Lifeway, the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, may stop selling The Message, according to a story in Christianity Today.

This is all so pitifully predictable, and while I will unhappily track the progress of this story, the main point here has naught to do with Eugene Peterson, except that he walked into a revelatory moment in American evangelicalism. Why is it such a huge deal that a retired pastor has finally said that homosexuality is not that big of a deal, and that if he were a pastor today, he’d marry a gay couple? What is the obsession with human sexuality that makes the conservative evangelical church an angry, bitter witness in the world? Why is a pastor who has served faithfully and written with care and integrity such an enemy when he changed his mind? And how in the hell is anyone served by removing a solid, modern translation of the Bible from the shelf of a bookstore because the writer believes things that he did not put in the text? What breeds this form of herd lunacy?

The answer is simple, really. Having abandoned all biblical admonitions that would impinge on their lives, this sect of evangelicals has chosen two tribal markers to signify their faith: human sexuality and abortion. They have long since abandoned the Ten Commandments, even as they lobby to have stone monuments placed on government property with the erstwhile ethical guidelines to serve as a totem, despite it being bereft of power and authority. They do not keep the Sabbath. They take the Lord’s name in vain regularly—a commandment that has to do with actions done in the “name of the Lord,” not using naughty language.

They covet, divorce with impunity, kill “the enemy” regularly, bear false witness on political talk shows and from pulpits, and make idols of all manner of power, wealth, status and racial privilege.

In short, they need something to prove that they are faithful children of God. Alas, the commandments are too great a burden, so they choose things that don’t touch their lives. Until they do. And then, some of those who have been affected by a pregnant teen or gay child undergo a second conversion, or deconversion, if you will. Those who remain demand adherence to the two rules that matter: thou shalt not be gay, and thou shalt not terminate a pregnancy. It’s a sad, truncated message of grace, and their own sacred text warns them against themselves in words attributed to St. Paul: “Having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof: from such, turn away.”

Sycophant-in-Chief

As a former pastor, I still have visceral responses to pastors who behave in ways that make it impossible for them to exercise moral or pastoral authority. Robert Jeffress has been the most egregious offender lately. The senior pastor of First Baptist Dallas went fanboy yesterday in the Oval Office. I just don’t think obsequious and fawning should ever describe a minister of any faith. He’s clearly as unfit as his hero to carry out his tasks. Even the Southern Baptist Convention deserves better.

More problematic, though, is the admonition to ignore the “fake news media.” Who exactly comprises the fake news media? Does he include the outlets currently reporting on Donald Trump, Jr.’s meeting with a Russian attorney? The sloppy and partisan use of vague language comes far closer to electioneering and pandering than it does to using words of wise counsel for his congregants. He might just as well put on the jester hat, except jesters were prophets of a sort. Jeffress seems unable to find the truth he claims to represent, and it’s clear he’s guilty of violating the third commandment.

The Constitution is and isn’t a Word-a-Day Calendar

Keith Olbermann called for President Trump’s ouster from office yesterday. I’m a fan of Mr. Olbermann, especially the old ESPN Olbermann, but the political version of the pundit is not as likable as the sportscaster version. One seems to enjoy his job; the other takes himself too seriously.

This is the latest soteriological fantasy devouring the intellect of my liberal friends. I’m afraid that Article 4 of the 25th Amendment is not going to be invoked against President Trump for being an asshole. That, unfortunately, is not a reason to remove someone from office, except maybe a school or camp counselor. It also highlights an annoying trend in our political process, where “process” is taken to mean “shit we say on social media about politics.”

Just as every SCOTUS decision creates an abundance of legal experts who have no law degree, so too does every Trump moment of asshattery create Constitutional experts. The Constitution is like a word-a-day calendar in that you can learn a new thing by reading a new article every day. Unfortunately, though, as with the iconic desk calendars, learning a new thing does not teach you context, application or nuance. If you’ve ever read a freshman English paper, you understood immediately that knowing a word is not the same as knowing how it’s used.

Still, I do appreciate people reading the Constitution one article at a time as the need arises, but it’s like trying to fix your friends’ problems with a sporadic read of the DSM or PDR.

On Robert Jeffress’s Unrequited Love for Donald Trump

I’ve watched Robert Jeffress fawn over the President since his inauguration sermon—which he references in patently self-congratulatory ways throughout this video—but this speech from last night’s Celebrate Freedom Rally at the Kennedy Center finally reveals what’s been going on all along. Pastor Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Church of Dallas has a massive crush on President Trump. He comes off like the bully’s sidekick who is just happy he’s not the one being bullied. It’s not a stretch to call it a poorly repressed sexual attraction. Just watch his face when he talks about Trump reversing the nation’s “downward death spiral” (:31), or worse, when he gives the President credit for doing “more to protect religious liberty than any President in U.S. history” (1:17). I should mention that Jeffress gets most of his “history” from David Barton, a non-historian who traffics in nonsense about America’s Christian foundation.

Le Fou

President Trump thanking Robert Jeffress for last night’s adulatory introduction.

The real Le Fou moment comes at 1:46, when Jeffress remembers praising Trump for entering the Oval Office with more natural gifts and leadership abilities than any previous President. Who knew that Washington, Adams and Jefferson were less gifted than Donald Trump? Only a man deeply in love could manage such nonsense. Has he not heard of Lincoln or FDR either? Does he read history? Understand it? The pastor of a 10,000-member Baptist church wrote an introduction for the President that sounds like the lavish, masturbatory love poetry of a besotted 13-year-old boy. No one doubts the feelings are real; we just want the teenager to have a little more perspective, a little more experience, a little more wisdom.

Most egregiously, Jeffress barely acknowledges the ostensible purpose of last night’s civil religion worship service: the military veterans. He gives Trump credit for “respecting our veterans” at 1:04. I’m forced to wonder how Trump has done that, especially given that he seems hellbent on kicking millions of them off federal medical aid programs. Jeffress does not live in a fact-based world, though. His is faith-based, but not even the good kind of faith. His is a preference for things as he wishes them to be. When at 2:30 he invites listeners to remember a picture of the President with head bowed and eyes closed at the Western Wall—a picture the President tweeted and captioned with “I am asking for God’s wisdom”—nothing can prepare us for the naïveté of Jeffress’s conclusion. “That is one reason I am so enthusiastically supportive of this President!”

Truly, what could be more convincing than a picture of the President pretending to pray in front of the Western Wall? I’m assuming Jeffress has children. I’m also forced to wonder what his response would be were one of his teenage children to say they intended to go on a three-day cruise with a new date and that the date had promised: “He said he has no intentions to try to have sex with me.” Matter settled? The avoidance of credulity applied to the security of our children should at least be equal to that concerned with the credibility and fitness of world leaders. Not in Jeffress’s faith-based read, though. He finishes by heaping messianic expectations upon Trump, asserting that God is giving us one more chance, maybe the last chance, to save our country.

Jeffress’s next book–he’s written a couple dozen–should be How to Give Caesar a Verbal Handjob in Front of an Entire Country and Remain a Christian.

We will trust in the name of our Gorsuch (Updated)

Update: I have added the first part of Robert Jeffress’s opening remarks from the Celebrate Freedom rally at the bottom of the post, as well as the lyrics to the new “hymn,” Make America Great Again, sung by the Dallas First Baptist choir.

Original post follows:

Tonight at the Kennedy Center, President Trump will team up with his court prophet, Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of Dallas First Baptist, at the Independence Day extravaganza. Jeffress invested all his pastoral and moral authority in Trump during last year’s election cycle, and like many Southern Baptists, he believes America is a Christian nation. His sermons on the subject induced so many eye rolls in the first ten minutes, I had to force myself to finish them.

Before going any further, I have to say that I’ve been told on pretty solid authority that the FBC Dallas choir will debut a new “hymn” tonight titled Making America Great Again. 

If that turns out to be true, I’ll certainly post and mock the lyrics here later. That they would actually call it a hymn brings me to the main point.

This week has made clear yet again that President Trump would not be where he is without the allegiance of millions of so-called evangelical Christians, Jeffress notable among them. For my evangelical friends, relax; this isn’t about you. I don’t think most of the people who voted for Trump who called themselves evangelical really are. They are in a totally different and really old category: civil religionist. It’s one of the oldest categories in the history of religion.

fbc dallas

Congregants at Dallas First Baptist worshipping the American Empire?

When looking at religious people, we look at their practices to determine which sect is theirs. Listening to words is often pointless, as Americans have learned to separate belief into cognitive and active spheres, as if what I do is possibly not what I believe. The current milieu provides a stellar example. Those who call themselves evangelical allegedly believe in a form of Christian theism. For the religiously uninformed, that is a Christian who believes God is personal, knowable, and active in the world.  In other words, God actually does stuff in the lives of his followers. You’ve most likely heard people say something about answered prayer or God “working something out” or “making a way.” Those are theistic statements.

The problem with this pro-Trump “evangelical” crowd is that they abandoned theism in favor of civil religion, which is just a spiritualized form of pragmatism. Civil religion, best understood, is religion at the service of the state or in support of the political/cultural status quo. Jesus was no fool, and I can say that without believing he was God. When talking about absolutes, he postulated that humans can only serve one master. In that context, it was God or Mammon, but that second choice can be any number of things, including political power or influence.

(Your religion nerd friends will call this Constantinianism, after the Emperor Constantine who gave Christians a privileged place in the Roman Empire, and according to the wisest theological historians, utterly destroyed the moral authority of the Church ever after.)

Among the many excerpts from the Psalms that have been made into truly awful modern songs is Psalm 20:7. “Some trust in chariots, and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.” (NIV) The title of this post draws from that Psalm because the overwhelming moral justification in voting for Trump was to get control of the SCOTUS nomination. The thought was that Trump would pick a justice who is pro-life. This is really about the ongoing fantasy in fundamentalist circles that Roe v. Wade will one day be overturned, and the messianic expectations landed on Trump, because they knew Mrs. Clinton was not going to pick a pro-life judge.

This is the moment where the method reveals the religious conviction. These people had no faith in God to work out something on earth. (Honestly, it’s hard to blame them, and I do wish they’d simply admit that if he does exist, he’s busy elsewhere or just doesn’t much care for humans–hard to blame him on most counts there, too.) Their faith was in Trump and his choice for the Supreme Court. God certainly wasn’t going to do it, so the transfer from theism to civil religion makes perfect sense. There is even a justification for it under a messianic guise: God’s man for the task, or some other such shit. Those are just words to disguise the reality that the so-called evangelicals had no faith when it mattered, and so voted for the closest thing any of them will ever see to an actual antichrist.

Jeffress is enjoying his newfound importance in the king’s court, but if there is any truth in that book Jews and Christians read, a false prophet’s day of reckoning is always just around the corner. Evangelicals of conscience, including the Southern Baptists among them, you may want to start publicly separating yourselves from the civil religionists who are co-opting the words and symbols of your faith.

Updated Section

Jeffress gets an inexplicable standing ovation when he’s announced. Why is a pastor getting a standing ovation for speaking at a patriotic event? Anyway, he makes a quick joke about it: “Trust me; I’m just the warm-up act.” That’s followed by a quick introduction of himself and his church, as well as a brief welcome to the audience. Then this.

“In Psalm 33, verse 12, the psalmist declared, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD.” It is absolutely an indisputable fact that our nation was founded on a love for God and a reverence for his Word, and because of that, we have experienced the undeserved favor of God upon our country.

“But it is also an indisputable fact that in recent years there have been those who have tried to separate our nation from its spiritual foundation. And that reality has caused many of us, many Christians to despair and wonder, ‘Is God finished with America? Are our best days over? Has God removed his hand of blessing from us?”

“But in the midst of that despair came November the eighth, twenty sixteen. (Pause for applause.) That day represented the greatest political upset in American history. (Pause for applause.) Because it was on that day, November 8th, that God declared that the people, not the pollsters are gonna choose the next President of the United States…And they chose Donald Trump!”

The Lyrics to Make America Great Again

Thanks to the Reverend for sending this along.

Make America Great Again x 2
Light the torch of freedom all across the land.
Step in to the future joining hand in hand.
Make America Great Again x 2 with “each and every day” added to the last MAGA.

I’ll post the video as soon as it’s available.

Kafka, on meaning

Couriers

They were given the choice between becoming kings or the couriers of kings.  In the manner of children, they all wanted to be couriers.  As a result, there are only couriers.  They gallop through the world shouting to each other messages that, since there are no kings, have become meaningless. Gladly would they put an end to their miserable existence, but they dare not, because of their oaths of service. –Franz Kafka: Translated by Lyman Baker.

I’ve been reading through Kafka’s “parables,” as they’ve come to be called. The genre designation works for Couriers, if not for the whole collection. This one struck me because as I attempt to come to grips with religion as a no-longer-religious person, I’m forced to contend with questions of meaning.

Teaching religion every summer to college students of diverse backgrounds forces a fair degree of introspection and reflection on me, both as I assemble material for class and as I attempt to answer questions, many of which, inevitably, have no good answer.

“How can you not believe in God?” A student will ask upon finding out I’m a former pastor and current skeptic. “Where did creation come from, if not from God?” The question is asked with genuine befuddlement, and mostly, a proper concern for my soteriological well being. Many of you will know what’s coming. It will feel a bit like a parlor trick, in fact, but it’s a question that has to be asked in an introductory religions class, if only to establish that the playing field will not favor a religion or religion in general.

“Where did God come from? If all things emerge from something else, in the causal sense, then what is God’s cause?”

When confronted with difficult questions, questions not just of meaning or origin, but questions of morality and practice, most of the students revert back to the answers they have been given, and they will continue to repeat those answers even when it’s apparent the words don’t actually satisfy the question’s demands.

It’s a trick of language, of course, a sort of demythologized magic that allows words to retain power — much like an incantation to be used against doubt — long after they have ceased to be real answers. When confronted with the above question, the student will always say simply that God always was/is. Then follows the moment at which they realize that this class will not be like Sunday School. I will not nod in agreement, because “God is” is not an answer; it’s an article of faith.

Sitting in a religion class must be an amazing thing for a novitiate of education, and I’m constantly disappointed that my initial introduction to religions other than Christianity came in the form of books, most of which were written by Christian apologists, that noxious sect of faux philosophers whose sole aim is to disprove all other religions, even as they do not understand that they saw off the branch on which they — the carrion birds of faith — perch. What must it feel like to sit side by side with people of other and no faith and discuss these things for the first time? I’ve never had that experience at the level of an introductory religion class.

The juxtaposition does create tension, obviously, but not the type you’d expect. The faith-havers tend to side with each other against the faithless, because many of us still believe that there is epistemological safety in numbers. To argue, however, that a person of no faith is deficient without faith requires an argument based on some sort of reason, and it’s at that point that the bright student realizes that if reason is applied to the whole process, all are doomed. Reason combined with a preference for a specific religious tradition, then, causes a balkanization of religious alliances, so that all fall back on their own dogmas. How else do you face a world without fixed meaning? If the answers no longer work, it’s best to keep using them lest you are forced to confront something worse.