Guest Post: The Holy Hot Button, Unveiling the Vote

This is great piece by Beatrice Bowles. As she writes, people are afraid to talk about money and sex,but especially God/ religion/ spirituality in an open way. In my earlier post today, it mentions the Vital Voices event I attended, where retired Bishop William Swing of the United Religions Initiative said, “A lot of times religion keeps women from taking a place at the table.”

Here is Bowles’s piece about that issue:

Before the sixties, sex, money and, God forbid, religion were considered off-limit topics–three subjects we were supposed to never discuss.  In the sixties, sex became more open and sexologists’ once-scandalous insights became common knowledge–from the joys of orgasm to the horrors of abuse.  The subject of money, too, has become anything but taboo.  Whether in the media or in political debate or at the dinner table, we assess the uses and abuses of wealth.  We debate the design of our economic system–free-market or regulated?  Books on economics for adults and children flourish.  Economic reformers and white-collar criminals make the news about equally.

Still the subject of religion remains on shaky ground.  The comfort, guidance, and inspiration that religions offer stand in stark contrast to the prejudice that can breed within and between them.  Despite freedom of religion (and/or from religion) being a tenet of our society, a dangerous propensity for intolerance shadows faith.  In some places, the scientific teaching of evolution is banned by doctrinal literalists.  In others, doubt or discussion of religious differences is considered heresy.

Caught in the quagmire, intellectuals flail about.  Cultural gadfly Christopher Hitchens pushes for a new atheism in “God is Not Great: Why Religion Poisons Everything.”(2009)  In his New Yorker article, ‘God in the Quad,’ scholar James Woods retreats cautiously towards the holiness of science as grounds for faith.

So far, spiritual leaders have us failed, too.  Asked recently if there was anything new in spiritual education that might ease the muddle, a top Christian cleric assured me, “Nothing.”   Religions persist in misguided conflicts with science and/or with each other.

Yet a solution lies within reach if we establish two grand and desperately needed distinctions.  First is that religion and science are parallel but different levels of thought.  Science attempts to explain physical matter, its laws, properties and energetics, at a whole level above and beyond science.  Religions attempt to explain the abstract meaning of life: why are we here, how shall we best live, what vast intelligence lies behind creation, what happens when we die?

Secondly, all religions, being abstract in essence, are relative in nature–no matter how grand, prescriptive, helpful or precious each may be to their leaders and followers.  Is there only one right deity?  Only one right prayer?  One right ritual?  Only one sacred story?  No more than there is one right flower or river.  No religion can ever trump another.  In a democracy, no religion should be allowed to trump freedom of faith.  As we know too well, the worst abuses of spiritual authority seem to arise in religions which claim infallibility and demand blind, unthinking obedience from their followers.

Properly defined, religion and science cannot and do not negate each other.  Scientific thinking and mythic thinking are complementary, not contradictory, forms of thought.  Conflicts arise when either realm attempts to deny the validity of the other.  Ask Galileo.  Sorrily, our educators seem stymied by fear of offending devout worshippers of one tradition or another.  Rather than teaching students about tolerance, respect, and appreciation for the varieties of religious expression, for the most part, nothing of the sort is taught.

Politicians behave equally poorly.  When French President Sarkozy banned women from wearing the head scarf in public, he double-faulted.  First he denied Muslim women’s freedom of religion as well as all women’s right to wear what they want.  Second he failed to assert the over-arching requirement of citizenship in a democracy.  Why not rule that women have the right to wear veils, but that they must show their faces when the public good requires–as when applying for driver’s permits and identity papers, answering police inquiries, or performing other such public duties?  Such acts of intellectual ineptitude on a politician’s part only inflame zealotry.

Since we are left to educate ourselves, as a start, I propose reading some of the world’s great sacred myths in which heaven is almost always envisioned as a beautiful garden where the fruit of a central tree holds knowledge of good and evil.  Human nature almost always appears as both tricky and powerful, and love and kindness are deemed paramount.  When we discover the striking similarities beneath the vast diversity, all we risk is deepening our spirituality, widening our humanity, and bolstering our respect for freedom.  Such awareness might help to dethrone power-mad hierarchs, haters, and holy war mongers.  After all, we delight in the food of many lands.  Why should we and our children not dine on Earth’s divine wisdom as well?

Beatrice Bowles, writer and storyteller, creates award-winning CDs of world mythology through her company, Harmony Hill Productions