Conspiracy theories and religion

In the latest podcast at the Religious Studies Project, Carmen Celestini, a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre on Hate, Bias, and Extremism, talks about her research into conspiracy theories. She begins by offering one of the best definitions I’ve ever heard of what a conspiracy theory actually is:

“A conspiracy theory is usually some articulation of fear and trying to find an answer to what’s causing the fear or causing sustained sense of disaster. It’s an explanation when some of the things that you would normally turn to aren’t providing the answers you’re looking for.”

Then she offers a fascinating overview of conspiracy theories in North America, from the Know-Nothings in the 19th century, to the John Birch Society in the 20th century, to QAnon in the 21st century. She covers a bunch of topics that I’m currently fascinated with, including the resurgence of the John Birch Society in recent years, “Blue Beam,” “White Lives Matter,” the Council for National Policy, and the role of religion among people who refuse to get vaccinated.

She concludes by saying that it’s not helpful to merely dismiss conspiracy theories, because they’re not going to simply disappear:

“Possibly when people get back to work and the pandemic is over and people start engaging with social groups again, [the prevalence of conspiracy theories] might lessen a little bit, but those ideas of distrust are not going to simply go away. Those ideas of distressing the media or government are not going to go away. And it is something that the government and media and all of us have to articulate. We have to be out there in our public intellectualism talking about these things and not dismissing people but engaging and trying to understand.”

This is useful advice for religious liberals who may be inclined to dismiss conspiracy theories, and the religious impulses associated with them. Instead of dismissing them, we’d be better off using our skills in interfaith and cross-cultural understanding. The distrust underlying conspiracy theories is real, and it behooves us to try to understand.

Ellen Sturgis Hooper

Last night, our congregation hosted an online class by John Buehrens on the women of Transcendentalism. John’s stimulating talk prompted me to go read some poetry by Transcendentalist women. I remembered some of the Transcendentalists I knew in Concord, Massachusetts, in the 1990s talked in glowing terms of the Sturgis sisters — Ellen Sturgis Hooper and Caroline Sturgis Dall — so I started with Ellen Sturgis’ poetry. And came across this:

Beauty may be the path to highest good,
And some successfully have it pursued.
Thou, who wouldst follow, be well warned to see
That way prove not a curvèd road to thee.
The straightest path perhaps which may be sought,
Lies through the great highway men [sic] call “I ought.”

This short Transcendentalist poem directly contradicts today’s typical notion that the Transcendentalists were a bunch of wild-eyed hyper-individualistic proto-hippies, bent on “doing their own thing.” Actually, none of them was; a few of them, like Emerson himself, pursued beauty as “the path to the highest good,” but that is quite different than being a hyper-individualist. From what I can tell, most of the nineteenth century Transcendentalists followed the path of duty, rather than beauty; these are the Transcendentalists who fought for abolition of slavery and women’s rights, and fought against poverty; they are better described as disciples of Immanuel Kant and his moral imperatives. I’d prefer to group myself with the Transcendentalists who follow “the great highway [of] ‘I ought’.”

Another of Ellen Sturgis Hooper’s poem struck me:

Hymn of a Spirit Shrouded

O God, who, in thy dear still heaven,
Dost sit, and wait to see
The errors, sufferings, and crimes
Of our humanity,
How deep must be thy causal love!
How whole thy final care!
Since Thou, who rulest over all,
Canst see, and yet canst bear.

Though Ellen was a Unitarian, this strikes me as a Universalist poem, because the phrase “thy final care” implies to me that Ellen Sturgis’s God plans to bring all souls into God’s embrace. Yet Sturgis also confronts head on the hardest thing to understand about universal salvation: there are certain people whom I would not want to extend ultimate salvation — such as the police officer who killed George Floyd, thus betraying both his public trust as a police officer, and his humanity — or the people who commit domestic violence — or the plutocrats who, to defend their ill-gotten wealth, fund and stir up Christian nationalists and white supremacists to destabilize U.S. democracy. Yet Ellen Sturgis’s God has a love for humanity that is so deep, that God can see humanity’s “errors, sufferings, and crimes,” and bear them, and still love. That’s well beyond my limited power, and I suppose that’s why people like me need to follow “the great highway [of] ‘I ought’.”

Ellen Sturgis Hooper died of tuberculosis in 1848, at the age of 36. Her poems were published in Transcendentalist periodicals during her lifetime. After her death, her son Ned printed her poems for private distribution, in an edition of just 8 copies. Several of her poems were also included in hymnals and anthologies.

I found little biographical information about her, aside from mentions of her marriage to physician Robert William Hooper, and her friendship with Margaret Fuller, and her relationship to famous men like William Ellery Channing, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry James, Sr. However, there is a book-length biography of her daughter, Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life, Natalie Dykstra (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) which offers a brief but insightful biography of Ellen (see pp. 3-15).

Ellen’s father was a sea captain and co-owner of a large merchant trading firm; her mother was the daughter of a judge. At age fourteen, Ellen’s beloved older brother died in a tragic accident, an event that completely unhinged her mother, who in her grief was no longer care for Ellen and her other children. Ellen, as the second oldest child, wound up being mother to her younger siblings. At age 25, she was married to Robert Hooper in King’s Chapel, Boston, by Rev. Ephraim Peabody. Peabody said it was “one of the happy marriages,” and Dykstra writes, “Robert’s caution and his more retiring nature might have seemed dull to Caroline Sturgis [Ellen’s sister] and Margaret Fuller but appealing to Ellen, promising ballast after a tumultuous childhood.” She and Robert settled in Boston, living close to her father’s mansion, and close to her sister Anne who had married Robert’s brother, Sam. In 1839, Ellen and her sisters Caroline and Anne were part of the first of Margaret Fuller’s “Conversations.” Ellen lived close to Elizabeth Palmer Peabody’s Transcendentalist bookstore where the “Conversations” were held. Further connections to Transcendentalism came after both of the Hooper families joined James Freeman Clarke’s Church of the Disciples, when it was founded in 1841.

Although many other Transcendentalists became active in various social justice causes, such as abolition, Ellen followed her duty in another direction; according to Dykstra, “Ellen’s husband and three children were the heart of her life.” This makes sense, given Ellen’s experience of her own mother, who had in grief over the death of one child abandoned all her other children. After her third child and favorite child, Clover, was born in 1843, Ellen’s tuberculosis again grew worse. Ellen died in 1848, when Clover was only five years old, and before her death Ellen must have wondered and worried about what would happen to her children after she died. Who would be a mother to them, once she was dead? She found no easy religious or spiritual answer to such a difficult question. Ephraim Peabody, minister of King’s Chapel, who officiated at her funeral, wrote that in her last year of life she had become “almost a mystic.”

I’ll close with one final poem, which is undated, but perhaps came from the end of Ellen’s life:

One about To Die

Oh, melancholy liberty
Of one about to die —
When friends, with a sad smile,
And aching heart the while,
Every caprice allow,
Nor deem it worth while now
To check the restless will
Which death so soon shall still.

Downside to decline

The report by the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Commission on Institutional Change puts it starkly: if Unitarian Universalists don’t figure out how to become less white, we will die out (because: demographics).

Fair enough. But we’re seeing rise of the “nones,” people who have no religious affiliation, and so maybe it’s time for organized religion to die. If it’s time for organized religion to die, why should we care?

In a recent article titled “White Christian America built a faith-based safety net. What happens when it’s gone?”, Religion News Service has an answer to this question.

“The growth of the so-called nones doesn’t mean that belief is disappearing, but ‘loosely organized spirituality’ among people who have few ties to each other lacks precisely the organization that can marshal thousands of key volunteers.

“‘They don’t congregate,’ [Brad] Fulton [associate professor of nonprofit management at Indiana University] said. ‘And that is the key thing.’

“Religious congregations, on the other hand, he said, ‘ask people to give once a week, week after week. They tell people about volunteer opportunities once a week, week after week. There is no other social institution like them.’

“In some ways, the infrastructure of religion matters more than the spiritual part. The so-called nones, at least for now, can’t replace that.

“‘There is some upside to organized religion that has very little to do with religion,’ he said. ‘They have a great mechanism to bring people together. It is really hard to identify an organized secular equivalent.'”

This is not far from what Unitarian theologian and sociologist James Luther Adams said in the mid-twentieth century: congregations function as voluntary associations. And congregations provide real and tangible benefits to society.

Another point worth noticing here: Fulton, a scholar of management, says that what congregations do — that no one else does — is to congregate, “week after week.” The loose networks created by social media (so far at least) don’t do this, so unfortunately we can’t expect social media networks like Black Lives Matter to fill this void.

Sacred myths of Abrahamic religions, parts 1-3

Three video lecturettes on the shared myths of Abrahamic religions. I’ll include links to all three videos below the fold, followed by texts of the talks.

Some of the books referenced in this video series:
“Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers,” Kwame Anthony Apiah (W. W. Norton, 2006)
“J.B.: A Play in Verse,” Archibald MacLeish (Houghton Mifflin, 1958)
The children’s story books are:
“Bible Stories of Jewish Children: Joshua to Queen Esther,” Ruth Samuels (Ktav Publishing, 1973)
“The Pilgrim Book of Bible Stories,” Mark Water (Pilgrim Press, 2003) “Goodnight Stories from the Quran,” Saniyasnain Khan (Goodword Books, 2005)

Continue reading “Sacred myths of Abrahamic religions, parts 1-3”

It’s not the evangelicals, it’s the Christian nationalists

In an interview on the Religious Studies Podcast, journalist Katherine Stewart points out that it’s wrong to identify all Christian evangelicals with the Trump White House. Stewart’s research shows that the Trump White House uses religion to mobilize voters to support them — specifically, mobilizing voters around abortion and opposition to same sex marriage and LGBTQ+ rights. She calls this a political movement, which she names “Christian nationalism.”

When pressed by the interviewer, David McConeghy, Stewart elaborates on why Christian nationalism is fundamentally about politics, not about religion. Speaking of one of the leaders of the movement, Ralph Drollinger, Stewart says:

“The policies he’s promoting are: deregulation; sort of a compliant workforce; a lack of basic workers’ rights; I think he’s called the flat tax something like ‘God’s form of taxation.’ And you know, this is all music to the ears of the funders of the movement. Many of the funders are these members of plutocratic families … the DeVos and Prince families, the Green family. And these very hyper-wealthy families rely on minimal workers’ rights, and economic and environmental deregulation to maintain and increase their profits. So the movement is promoted to the rank-and-file as being about these culture war issues. But when movement leaders are talking amongst themselves, or to political leaders, the message is much more expansive.”

Stewart also believes, based on her research, that Christian nationalism as a political philosophy is basically opposed to representative democracy; yet the Christian nationalists are also very sophisticated at manipulating the electorate to get their supporters into positions of leadership and power.

For these and other reasons, Stewart asserts that this is a political movement, one that uses religion for its own ends. I think this is a helpful way of looking at electoral politics in this election year: rather than being distracted by the red herring of Christian evangelicals getting involved in politics, we would do better to pay attention to the manipulation of the electorate by the political force of Christian nationalism.

After secularization….

At the Religious Studies Project, Dick Houtman has written a blog post titled “After Secularization: Unbelief in Europe.” Houtman has done some small-scale studies of unbelief in Europe, and relates his findings to larger intellectual trends, including the rise of “spiritual but not religious.” Houtman concludes that while this new contemporary spirituality is not old-school Christianity (which is where we get the “not religious” piece of the label), it is nevertheless a religion:

“Despite the still popular notion that contemporary spirituality is too privatized and individualized to have much social significance, this has become increasingly difficult to maintain [that’s it’s not a religion]. Surely, spirituality’s very character stands in the way of loyalty to church-like organizations and religious doctrines, but it does boast loyalty to what Campbell (2002 [1972]) has called ‘the cultic milieu’, a milieu to which the western mainstream has increasingly opened up. In the process, it has become clear that the public role of spirituality differs significantly from the ideological and political role that Christian religion used to play, and in many countries still plays. Guided by the spiritual motto, ‘One does not need to be sick to become better’, the public role of spirituality is more therapeutic than ideological and is played out in realms that range from work (Aupers & Houtman 2006, Zaidman 2009) to health care (Raaphorst & Houtman 2016, Zaidman 2017) and education (Brown 2019).”

It’s a short post, and worth reading for anyone trying to understand so-called secularization; I particularly like Houtman’s use of the word “unbelief” to name what is erroneously called “non-religiousness.”

Classical gender equality

The Daffodil Project aims to “champion gender equality in classical music.” In a blog post, Elizabeth de Brito writes:

“Mozart and Beethoven together make up just over one third of all classical performances…. Add the next 4 most played composers — Bach, Brahms, Schubert, Tchaikovsky — and they make up 78% of classical performances. Over 400 years and hundreds of amazing composers, but nearly 80% of all performances are of just 6 white male composers that all died over a century ago?!”

De Brito produces an online gender-balanced classical music program which in its first year had “409 composers including 204 female composers, 155 living composers, and 40 BAME composers/composers of colour.” The most played composer? — Florence Price.

And De Brito has hit on one of the main reasons why I don’t bother going to hear classical music concerts much any more — I’m so bored by hearing the same composers over and over again. I like “classical” music just fine, but I don’t want to hear Beethoven and Mozart again and again, I want to hear living composers, women composers, non-white composers….

Which brings me to Unitarian Universalist services that use mostly classical music: what would happen if half the music in our worship services was composed by women? or if we programmed more composers of African descent? and how about a Mexican composer? Life would be a lot more interesting.

“A great positive achievement”

While watching the mass of the Abyssinian Orthodox church in Debra Lanos in 1930, during the coronation of Ras Tafari as emperor of Abyssinia, Evelyn Waugh noted that the liturgy was “quite unintelligible.” As a Roman Catholic, he had thought that the “canon of the Mass would have been in part familiar, but this was said in the sanctuary behind closed doors.” This observation led him to reflect on the exoteric (as opposed to esoteric) nature of Western Christianity:

“I had sometimes thought it an odd thing that Western Christianity, alone of all the religions in the world, exposes its mysteries to every observer, but I was so accustomed to this openness that I had never before questioned whether it was an essential and natural feature of the Christian religion. Indeed, so saturated are we in this spirit that many people regard the growth of the [Christian] Church as a process of elaboration — even of obfuscation; they visualize the Church of the first century as a little cluster of pious people reading the Gospels together, praying and admonishing each other with a simplicity to which the high ceremonies and subtle theology of later years would have been bewildering and unrecognizable….”

Parenthetically, I would note that this last observation captures the beliefs of many Unitarian Universalists: that early Christianity, in the days before the Nicene Creed — or Paul, or whomever one believes to be the bogeyman who spoiled true Christianity — was pure and simple. But let us continue with Waugh’s meditation:

“At Debra Lanos I suddenly saw the classic basilica and open altar as a great positive achievement, a triumph of light over darkness consciously accomplished, and I saw theology as the science of simplification by which nebulous and elusive ideas are formalized and made intelligible and exact. I saw the Church of the first century as a dark and hidden thing: as dark and hidden as the seed germinating in the womb; legionaries off duty slipping furtively out of the barracks, greeting each other by signs and passwords in a locked upper room in the side street of some Mediterranean seaport; slaves at dawn creeping from the grey twilight into candle-lit, smoky chapels of the catacombs. The priests hid their office, practising trades; their identity was known only to initiates; they were criminals against the law of their country. … And I began to see how these obscure sanctuaries had grown, with the clarity of Western reason, into the great open altars of Catholic Europe, where Mass is said in a flood of light, high in the sight of all, while tourists can clatter round with their Baedeckers, incurious of the mystery.” (Evelyn Waugh, “A Coronation in 1930,” When the Going Was Good [Penguin Books, 1946/1976], pp. 118-119)

Waugh, in 1930, was a recent and fervent convert to Roman Catholicism, and a good part of what he wrote here may be classed as Catholic apologetics directed at his Church of England readers. And some of what he wrote came from the fanciful imagination of the novelist, which is not to say that it is untrue, but it isn’t careful and dry academic discourse. And there is a core of truth in what he wrote: the mainstream of Western religion tends towards the exoteric, rather than the esoteric. This is as true of Protestantism and newer forms of Christianity as it was of Waugh’s Roman Catholicism. When the Pentecostal receives the baptism of the Spirit and speaks in tongues, it happens in front of the gathered congregation, and videos may be taken of the event and posted on Youtube. When the Unitarian Universalist minister delivers a highly intellectual sermon, everyone is welcome to come and listen to it, though you may need an advanced degree to keep up with the literary allusions and verbal footnotes.

“The World Is Full of Smelly Feet”

Veronika sent a photo of hymn number 736 in Anglican Hymns Old and New, Revised and Enlarged (Great Britain: Kevin Mayhew, 2008). The hymn is titled “The Wolrd Is Full of Smelly Feet.” Of course I thought it was a faked photo, but a little bit of Web searching reveals that it is, in fact, a real hymn with text by by Michael Forster, and music by Christopher Tambling.

I suppose if one is in a Christian church with a liturgical heritage, and one is looking for a contemporary praise-song-type hymn to sing during footwashing, one might consider having the congregation sing this; although it’s hard to imagine.

But then my Web searching revealed that this hymn is included in a collection for junior choirs, and that boggled my mind. If the junior choir I was in sang this song — which we wouldn’t have, since it was a Unitarian Universalist church — but if we had been told to sing that song, my buddy Barry and I would have been laughing so hard we probably would have been unable to sing. Maybe some of the serious older girls would have sung it, but I can’t even imagine them getting through the lyrics with a straight face.

I am sometimes annoyed by some of the hymns in the Unitarian Universalist hymnals. It is good to know that we, at least, do no have a hymn to smelly feet.

For educational purposes, and in the spirit of Maundy Thursday, I’ll include the chorus and two of the verses here. I think you’ll especially enjoy the unexpected rhyme between “toes” and “nose.”

Chorus: The world is full of smelly feet,
Weary from the dusty street.
The world is full of smelly feet,
We’ll wash them for each other.

Jesus said to his disciples,
‘Wash those weary toes!
‘Do it in a cheerful fashion,
‘Never hold your nose!

We’re his [Jesus’] friends, we recognise him
In the folk we meet;
Smart or scruffy, we’ll still love him,
Wash his smelly feet!