Friday, December 07, 2007

Atheist and religious fundamentalisms

I am going through a period of intellectual dullness. It has much to do with the move, which is very final. I am not using this blog as a confessional of late, though the temptation to do so is great. Kutichak recently compared me to a flame covered by a basket, refering to the description of Devaki's pregnancy. Clearly, the changes that I am going through are meant to bring that flame out into the open, but a flame in the open can easily be blown out. Who knows the future? Sometimes we just have to make a move. Like the Bhagavatam says--even if you run with your eyes closed, you won't trip, you won't fall. That is the essence of faith, the leap.

Reading Christopher Hitchens' sharp comments on today's Slate makes me realize just how much work there is to be done. Hitchens is a veritable cutting machine in his analysis of American obsession with faith and belief against the background of the American founding fathers' secularism.

Recently someone on the Guardian Comment is Free page took Christopher Hitchens to task for being a "fundamentalist" in the sense that his arguments are all against fundamentalist versions of these various religions. But in today's article, he really is simply asking for straight answers about where someone like Romney, a Mormon, stands in relation to a set of beliefs, history and traditions that in many cases not only stand in complete contrast to the cherished ideas of rationalism and secular democracy, but are downright nonsense in the eyes of most people, religious or not. In one nice turn of phrase, Hitchens talks about knowing the difference between being "born again and being born yesterday," or knowing the difference between "Deism and Theism."

I have always considered the entire Mormon belief system to be entirely unconvincing and without any attraction whatsoever. Despite that, I have prayed with young Mormon preachers who came to my door, with no feeling of alienation or distance. Nevertheless, I find it rather interesting to think where we Krishna bhaktas stand in relation to these other religious faiths. How would a Hare Krishna politician fare in a country where a Hindu priest saying a prayer in the Congress can stir up such heated passions? Certainly a devotee politician would receive an even more fatally mocking condemnation from the Hitchens of this world than Mitt Romney, what to speak of the opprobrium of the famous religious right.

Currently, the Krishna movement is downplaying politics. Prabhupada was something of a libertarian. And many of the most vocal intellectual threads in the Krishna consciousness movement seem to take very conservative positions, even aligning with the Christian right on many social issues, as well as evolution, etc. In fact, we see that there is a certain religious conservatism--whether Baptist, Mormon, Muslim or Hindu--that could form a broad coalition on these issues, even though each of these groups is deeply suspicious of the others.

Despite this, it is my feeling that most devotees in the West are basically liberal in their attitudes and deeply uncomfortable with much of the conservative rhetoric; and even if they are not always vocal, viscerally opposed to most of it when it manifests. It is one of the reasons that this movement is so lacking a tight center. It is in some ways comparable (on a much smaller scale) to the Catholic Church, where stated conservative orthodoxy and general public attitudes are at complete odds. The people seem to be pushing ahead of their leaders; they take something selectively from the tradition--some symbols, some rituals, some teachings--and disregard the political implications of the magisterium's social teachings or irrelevant dictates on scientific theory.

The reason for this latent or underlying liberalism amongst devotees, despite the deeply conservative social character of the tradition, is quite simply its rootedness in the "counterculture" and its offshoots, which rejected most established Western religion on every level--intellectual, cultural, and social. This rejection came as a result of a sustained critique of the Western establishment conservatism, which included the Catholic-Protestant-Jew consensus that had evolved by the 60's in the great melting pot.

The fact is that in religion, as with many other social phenomena, the conservative core will always have a certain residual power that comes from adherence to the familiar. Religion itself is an oasis from the confusion and challenge of constant change and aggressive novelty. [This is another area where sex and religion run on parallel tracks, for sex is another great sanctuary for the confused. And its appeal is more visceral, immediate and more easily intellectually defensible (as well as more debasing) than religion, especially where religion takes so many forms, each seeming to require the suspension of cherished disbelief.]

The relationship between the enlightenment consensus, or secularism, and liberal religiosity is a complex one. This is what Christopher Hitchens' critics are complaining about. I certainly can read Hitchens and agree with most of what he says, while still feeling that he does not get it. But then, most fundamentalists don't get it either. Literal belief in things that people believed literally even a century or two ago is not the solution to the materialism or the vapidity and frantic consumerism of modern culture. We have to accept the modernist critiques of rationalists like Hitchens or Dawkins, even if we feel they have missed the point.

The challenge for us is to show how a tradition can evolve by admitting the validity of much rational criticism and still not only preserve the core spirituality that provides the connecting thread for its history, but indeed to find new and inspiring meanings in the symbols and ideas that form that thread. Of course, this means alienating the conservatives because it requires reinterpretations that will draw on intellectual traditions outside our own, but that is the price to pay when we insist on excavating deeper universal truths in our tradition rather than hiding in hobbyism or fundamentalism.

1 comment:

Jagat said...

"It is one of the reasons that this movement is so lacking a tight center."

One of the interesting features of the KCM is the Indian guru phenomenon. Someone recently stated this to me--socially, she is more comfortable with Americans; where Harikatha is concerned, she is happier with Indians.

The solution is to find integration or synthesis between these two poles.

There will be more on this in a backdated article about the conversation I had with that person, which will eventually be posted when it is polished up and ready.