Strange Brouhaha

Thursday, March 03, 2005


A friend of Rob's sent me something by John Shelby Spong about atheism. I was very interested in it. In urging an atheist to find some sort of spiritual practice, Spong painted a beautiful picture of the true, searching church, which is open-minded and open-hearted and knows itself to be on a journey where the "answers" only lead to more questions. (By the way, that's exactly what Unitarian congregations strive to be like, so Spong was essentially telling this man to go become a Unitarian.)

Along the way, however, there was a swipe at "secular materialism," aka, the age-old idea that non-religious people must be a bunch of shallow go-getters who blind themselves to the deeper values of life. (By the way, Rob's friend made it very clear that she was not trying to imply that I personally was like this.)

But I do want to talk about that. One of the many things that ended up driving me away from organized religion was an article that I read in what was otherwise an extremely inclusive and welcoming Christian magazine published by a group of Episcopalians. (I'm blanking on the name.) They published an interview with a man who repeatedly criticized "those flaccid secularists" who have no sense of deeper values.

And I suddenly thought, Whoah! Hold on a minute! That is a really insulting phrase. Would he say "those neurotic Jews"? What makes him think it's okay to blatantly insult folks who don't go to church? My *mother* is secular. He's insulting my mother!

The thing is, he's not alone. It is pervasive in the religious community to assume that non-spiritual people *must be* shallow in some way. If not, they'd have religion, right? *Wrong.* There's more than one way to grapple with the big questions of life, more than one way to live your ethics, more than one way to make peace with the universe. And when it comes to that, sometimes "shallowness" is the most profound response of all. Or as the epically-screwed infantrymen of the Pacific theater put it back in the 40s, "We're the battlin' bastards of Bataan/No mama no papa no Uncle Sam/...and nobody gives a goddamn." Lock and load.


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