Sunday, April 22, 2007

Only religion can do it

There has been much discussion recently about the role of religion in society, following on the heels of a number of high-profile books and essays saying that religion is the root of all our problems, and should be eliminated in the best interest of mankind. I have come to the reverse conclusion- that if mankind is ever to enter the golden age we are on the verge of, it must and will be religion that will usher us there.

My thoughts jelled while reading the abortion discussion at Ms. Kitty‘s Saloon and Road Show . People are sometimes surprised to find out how strongly pro-life I am, because I do not call for legislation. My position is that it is not possible to write a law that will not be abused by one side or the other, that this is one of many issues that cannot be solved by the government- one must change hearts and minds. In fact, this is true of all the great issues, because of the very nature of government itself.

Government can only coerce, by virtue of having armed men at its command. Government is not equiped to persuade, and has no moral authority to place its values and judgments above your own. Individual statesmen can be persuasive, but they are only by virtue of their own personal integrity. Outlawing something only allows you to punish the perpetrator; it does not prevent the action from occurring. This is why there has been so little call for new laws in the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre- we have learned from Iraq that if a man is willing to die in the process, the full armed might of the US may not be enough to stop him.

If you really want to stop a given behavior, not merely punish it, you must do so by moral persuasion. This is something religion is uniquely equiped to do- but not just any religion. To be truly effective at such persuasion, the religion must have two features, the first of which is that any judgments made must be based on behavior, not belief or intent. Bizarre things happen when belief trumps behavior; people will kill themselves or others in the search for eternal life. They will deny their children medical care, snuffing out their young lives to buy them lives in another reality. The religion of the future of mankind must deal with one reality at a time.

The second thing it must do is truly preach the interconnectedness of all things. I don’t mean environmentalism, which is the only thing most people seem to think of when that phrase is used; I mean the fact that actions have far reaching consequences, that karma acts in the here and now, not the next life. Perhaps it would be better to use the more evocative term Adam Smith used when he wrote of this concept as applied to the economy: the invisible hand. Its actions are not always understood until afterwards- the law of unintended consequences- but the reaction of the invisible hand is unstoppable, more certain than death or taxes.

What do I mean, truly preach the invisible hand? I could envision a prison ministry going like this... you pull out an 8 x 10 glossy of a young child- “look at this- good looking kid, isn’t he? He lives in Africa. $500 a year would buy him a glass of milk and some green vegetables every day- but we can’t afford to give it to him because it costs $30,000 a year to keep you here in prison. You, there- how long are you in for?”

“Three more years.”

“Oooo... sorry...” as you speak, you take out a pen and scratch the eyes out of the picture. “This kid can’t wait that long- he and sixty more just like him will go blind from vitamin A deficiency. Here, keep the picture- he won’t need it. You- I’m told you’re a drug dealer?”


“Yes, they gave me a list of your customers; many are going into rehab. Oh, hey, this is ironic; it turns out your grandmother needs drugs, too, drugs that aren’t covered by Medicaid. But you know, we only have so much money for public medicine, and we have to spend it on rehab- addicts kill people for drug money, little old ladies don’t. So Bob is getting what would have been your Granny’s 80th year of life instead; Jenny gets her 79th year... oh, wow, there another dozen names on this list. Here, take the list; you can explain it to your grandmother when she comes to visit you tomorrow- she still loves you, you know. The rest of you- when you’re out there acting like a big shot, you’re sentencing your friends and family to a form of slavery to pay for it, and you’re sentencing other more needy people to death. When you’re ready to admit that you’re the ones screwing up your own lives, not “the man”, and you want to turn it around, come see me.”

The effects of the invisible hand are, of course, world-wide. As I discuss here , according to the United Nations, there’s enough food right now to cure hunger today. The technology and resources exist to give everyone safe water and sanitation. In fact, the resources exist right now to give everyone on Earth a lifestyle equivalent to lower-to-middle class American- don’t take my word for it; Google around and run the numbers. So why don’t we? A combination of mismangagement, red tape- and money.

So what are we spending the money on instead? Again, you can prove it to yourself by Googling around and using a calculator, but I’ll go ahead and give it to you: crime. Take all the money spent on Law Enforcement and the Criminal Justice System, add in the cost of private security, lawyers, and the schools to teach them, factor in how much manufacturing goes into locks, security doors and barriers, cost of insurance, lost productivity... it’s literally trillions of dollars. Cut crime by 50% world-wide, and Sally Struthers will never have to cut another commercial about famine in Ethiopia. End civil wars as well, and Darfur will look like Muncie, Indiana.

But governments can’t do it- if they could, it would be done already. But religions could- religions have made far greater impact upon the world’s zeitgeist than this before. So what religions are candidates for this role? Liberal Christians- the UUA, UCC, others- might understand about deeds, not words, and interconnectedness, but are so hamstrung by their horror of being “judgmental” as to be utterly incapable of speaking truth to poverty (as opposed to speaking truth to power, which everybody and their blogger is doing). Pagans and NeoPagans understand “one reality at a time” and “the invisible hand” better than the Christians, as they are merely extensions of their “Rede” and “Karma” and “Three-fold Law”- but are hamstrung by their total lack of organization. Most Buddhists get it, but are no stronger a force in most G-8 countries than the Wiccans. There is no religion today positioned to take us into the promised land.
But what about the future? What religion will be the first to step up and lead mankind into its golden age?

My money is on the NeoPagans. The UUs have the organization, history, and money to do it, but have shown no desire to grow beyond a debating society. The UCC depends on defectors from the mainline Christian churches for their growth, and I just don’t think that’s good enough. The Pagans have no organization, but they have the energy, enthusiaism, and are perhaps the fastest growing faith in America. I’m betting the Pagans can grow an organization faster than the UUs can change from talkers to doers. So mote it be.


ms. kitty said...

Wow, terrific post, Joel. Thanks. Gad, now I have even more to think about.

Will said...

This is a great post.

I'd like to ask you a question off line. If that's OK my email is