Liberalism and Religion: A Significant Combination

I'm really excited to be participating in this year's Left Forum, a big annual event in New York City. I'll be doing a panel called "Inner Truth to Power: Meditation as a Revolutionary Act" with Sander Hicks, Robert Rafiq Lewis and Gregg Hill. As our description indicates, we will be exploring controversial topics with reference to spiritual traditions such as "Buddhism, Sufism, radical Christianity, and Kabbalah".

I'm really proud that our panel is going to be something different. Left Forum is a very culturally inclusive conference, and yet I have a feeling that our panel's holistic focus will be considered "edgy" even by Left Forum standards ... which is to say that many of my fellow liberals and progressives who come to this event may be devoutly principled atheists, or may believe that religion and spirituality have no place in a conference whose affiliation — the Left — hearkens back to the French Revolution and Karl Marx. I disagree with this objection, and I'm happy to explain why.

I believe that the goal of a "leftist" or liberal or progressive political thinker should be construed in the widest possible sense. We are on the side of social change; we like to mix things up and are not afraid to experiment with social structures; we believe strongly in individual freedom, privacy and liberty; we want economic and ethnic justice; we care urgently about the environment; we want an end to war. This is my definition of what the Left Forum should be about.

Nowhere in the definition of a modern Leftist or liberal or progressive is there any belief or program that conflicts with any kind of religion. In this sense, it is really regrettable that many people I talk to, including several of my own allegedly smart liberal friends, are tremendously bigoted towards Muslims, or towards fundamentalist Christians, or towards pro-Israel Jews. They proudly declare their hatred for the whole fabric of religion, which they blame for the clusterfuck of modern geopolitical war.

Many people fixate on the religious recitations of ISIS or Al Qaeda or recall those of Osama bin Laden (who, in my opinion, was just another power-hungry revolting fascist like Donald Trump, and there was little evidence that Osama bin Laden was sincerely religious at all). It sometimes helps to remind folks that the most murderous monsters of the 20th Century were three atheists: Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. Meanwhile, Mahatma Gandhi, Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King used three separate religions — Hinduism, Catholicism and Protestantism — as the foundations of their epic achievements as peacebuilders. Not too shabby for religion, I think.

People who see religion as a negative influence on world culture must not be thinking very hard. Dear friends: please take a moment to consider the fact that religion itself has never been the cause of any war or genocide in history — except in the abstract sense that religion is used as a surrogate for ethnic or national identity. A sober and extensive top-down study of modern history proves that no geopolitical conflict has ever been fought over concern with metaphysical issues such as the transmigration of the soul, or the nature of being. This is for the same obvious reason that nobody fights wars over the Free Will Problem, or over Zeno's Paradox. Our political leaders don't care about that stuff. They are busy fighting over three things: land, money and oil.

I recently shared my observation that our still unresolved national trauma over September 11 is a direct cause of our vulnerability to the revolting fascist Donald Trump. I also think that our unresolved trauma over September 11 helps to explain our society's growing hatred for religion, which shocks me whenever I encounter it in my daily conversations. I encounter it a lot, and from people of all ages, all backgrounds, all levels of education.

My own doctor recently ranted to me about "those Muslims", and when I queried him I discovered that he actually believes the Islamic religious tradition itself to be the primary cause for Arab terrorism, as if history and politics had nothing to do with it. There was a hysteria and rage in my doctor's voice that gave me a clue as to what was behind his lapse of common sense. It's clear to me that many Americans are still badly traumatized from the shock of September 11 2001. We as a society need to come to terms with the way this trauma has warped our thinking.

The fact that so many people have developed a hatred for religion itself is really frightening, because religion is a part of human identity, of the human soul. Religion is not just a system of metaphysical and quasi-scientific beliefs — in fact, that is the aspect of religion that we may need least today. More importantly, religion is a still-growing and still-evolving ethical belief system that has formed over centuries and millennia. Like art and music and literature, this deep foundation of human thought grounds us in our roots. It reminds us that we are mysterious souls, that we may have eternal purpose, that there may be realms of existence beyond those we can easily touch and see. And it reminds us that we are a community, that we exist together, that we must treat each other with respect and consideration, that we exist as separate beings and we also all exist together as one. Whether we like it or not, we need religion to feel alive. We need religion to breathe. And our world certainly needs religion if our world will ever find peace.

"Inner Truth to Power: Meditation as Revolutionary Experience" is happening this Saturday, June 21 2016, at 10 am at the Left Forum at John Jay College in midtown Manhattan.

Other amazing participants in this year's Left Forum include Amy Goodman, Tariq Ali, Slavoj Zizek and Medea Benjamin. I wrote a bit more about the upcoming event on Literary Kicks. I plan to take in as much cool stuff as I can during this three day event, so if you spot me walking around, please say hi!

Comments

Religion can wind up so complex. As are the humans that seek it. But, at its best it does the best thing, which is to humanize one human to another. At its worst, it does indeed do the opposite....so glad you're experiencing this and sharing it with ys

...or martin luther himself. Not the kings, the sr taking the name after visiting germany and visiting the reformer's spots. Talk about civil disobedience...and meditation...and evolving...and mysterious. Check out his take on body and blood. Supernatural and literal. Certainly he was a pacifist. Was there such a label in the 1500s?...good luck with the panel levi!..

I may be one of those people who think that religion has no place in determining policy regarding politics, social justice, environment, or economics ( I don't usually respond favorably to those who say that only religion can offer an answer). Those issues are human/universe created constructs that can all be resolved without the use of religion. I'll throw some comments back at you for the purpose of discussion.

If, as you claim, religion was not a cause or a factor in any of the world's major problem, then why should it be included as part of a necessary solution?

And why didn't religion prevent any of that negative stuff from happening. After all, a large part of the population in many developed countries claim to be religious.

Spirituality and religion can be two separate things, one can exist without the other, depending on your definition of spiritual.

How can you say that the Israel-Palestine issue is not religious based? Or those girls kidnapped in Nigeria. Or most bombing by one religious group against civilians of another religious group? Happens almost every day.

Hitler is usually described as a christian.

Atheists make up the smallest percentage population of all the religions in the prison system in the US. Maybe it is the 'no atheists in foxholes' scenario. Or maybe atheists/humanists actually have a different set of ethics other than being scared to do the right thing because of the big guy watching everything.

Bottom line for me, it is not a fact that god exists. And furthermore, the bible was written by people claiming to be speaking for god but did it for personal empowerment, gain, or justification of their actions. Dictators always claim that they are speaking for god. Many of our candidates claim that god is on their side. Kind of like when two boxers step into a ring and both make a sign of the cross. I guess the one that wins means that god loves him more than the other loser guy. And since there is not proof that there is a god, I find solutions that call on his (or her) power or 'wisdom' to be disingenuous and ultimately counterproductive.

Why are there so many religions worshiping god in so many different ways? Why do people root for different baseball teams?

And personally, when a person tries to argue or justify their position by saying that their religion say or that the bible says, not only does it invalidate any argument they might have with me, it is tremendously divisive. Religions are used to further divide people because most religions are not inclusive. When you have some people saying to others you are not going to heaven, or not the chosen one, or my religion is better than yours, you are not working towards peace.

Some other thoughts re 9/11, I don't think that most Americans realize that this country may have done something wrong that would cause other people to attack this country. We have been an imperialist country for centuries, starting with the native people, and going after Africa, South America, and we are still carrying out imperialist policies. No one asks why we have hundreds of military bases all around the world. Some may say that this country has a god given duty to protect the world, as we take their natural resources, including oil and that leave their populations hungry and poor (Nigeria, Mexico). Some 200 people died in Syria just this week but that doesn't matter, or the fact that some of them died with US made weapons.

So what have we the people learned from September 11? That we should attack counties like Iraq and Afghanistan that had nothing to do with the attack. Attacking Afghanistan because bin Laden was there is like carpet bombing New Jersey because the mafia is from there.

Many Americans who are 'angry' about 9/11 are just having a knee-jerk reaction, reactionary, but not very well thought out and this includes some Trump supporters and fox news viewers. Most falsely believe that the hijackers came from Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria. But they are wrong, none of the hijackers were from those countries (15 out of the 19 were Saudi Arabian, our ally).

People can draw solutions or ideas from various resources, including religious writings, but to say that religion has to be part of the solution is counterproductive to having a real solution. Or to say that because it is religious based, it has more validity. It's interesting that some of your 'heroes of pacifism' on this page are atheist/agnostic.

And meditation doesn't have to reach to a higher power, just the everyday power that is around us from which there are plenty of lessons to be drawn. The solution is within all of us. However, intent, desire, or willingness to act in a more peaceful manner is sadly lacking within us as a people (and not because of any outside evil force). That might change, or might not (probably not). We are after all a selfish greedy population that never looks at the true cost of all that we have in America.

The elite always profit from an unjust system, and they want people to hate other people, because then it is easy to start wars for oil. Tell the people the Muslims want to take away your freedoms (or the Mexicans want to take your jobs) and ignore the fact that US soldiers are taking away their freedoms and oil.

That is not being pessimistic, that is just reviewing the past 3000 years of human history and seeing the same patterns repeated over and over. It is time to break the chain of supporting politicians, royalty, business people who act against the interests of the general public. As Voltaire said, 'It is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere.'

So it goes,

Thanks for pointing that out about Martin Luther, hypcollector. Great point, and yes, I do think there was a word for pacifist in Luther's time: Christian! How often we forget that Jesus was a pacifist too.

Attila - thanks for your pointed response - your constructive feedback is always very welcome here, even when we disagree! I will try to respond to your direct questions now:

You ask: "If, as you claim, religion was not a cause or a factor in any of the world's major problem, then why should it be included as part of a necessary solution?"

Good question, and perhaps I stated an expressive point too emphatically. I do not mean to declare that religion is required for world peace in any official or doctrinaire sense. Rather, I am suggesting that a greater general acceptance of religious diversity would be a good sign towards a more peaceful world, while conversely our world culture's current climate of hostility, prejudice and suspicion towards diverse religions seems to keep us mired in the mindset of endless war. I'm trying to make a soft point, in other words, rather than a hard point. I certainly don't think everybody needs to be religious for the world to have peace! But I do sometimes hear political atheists declare that religion is a barrier to future world peace, and I am saying conversely that religion should be seen as mostly constructive to, rather than destructive to, the possibility of world peace. Does that help explain?

You ask: "And why didn't religion prevent any of that negative stuff from happening. After all, a large part of the population in many developed countries claim to be religious."

This is why I point out that political/military leaders who claim to be motivated by religion (like Osama bin Laden or the leaders of ISIS) are likely to be pretending to be religious in order to cover up their naked hunger for power. And we fall for this ruse way too easily. Let's say an ISIS leader delivers a statement that includes several points about political goals and military goals, and also invokes the name of Allah. Our foolish press coverage will ignore all the (obviously relevant) political and military messages in the statement and focus only on the invocation of Allah. I am suggesting that we look more critically at our own gullibility, and the gullibility of our journalists and media outlets, when these events occur.

You say: "Spirituality and religion can be two separate things, one can exist without the other, depending on your definition of spiritual."

Fair enough, I'll go along with that.

You ask: "How can you say that the Israel-Palestine issue is not religious based? Or those girls kidnapped in Nigeria. Or most bombing by one religious group against civilians of another religious group? Happens almost every day."

I'm sure the Israel/Palestine conflict is not religious based. Are you not aware that many of the early Zionists who created Israel were proud atheists, for whom Jewish identity was a cultural and ethnic rather than a religious identity? And that many Palestinian Arabs who were displaced by Israel are Christian rather than Muslim? The Israel/Palestinian conflict is a textbook example of an ethnic/national conflict that uses religion as a surrogate for ethnic/national identity. This is an extremely important point that is also relevant to every other "religious" conflict in history. As I say above, wars are not actually fought over philosophical questions. They are fought over worldly matters: land, money and oil.

You say: "Hitler is usually described as a christian."

Not by anyone who has learned any of the facts about Hitler, or most of the other top Nazis. His weak attempts to occasionally pose as a devout Christian were nowhere near as convincing even as Osama bin Laden's weak attempts to pose as a devout Muslim. The religion of Nazism was Nazism, and Nazism was constantly in conflict with German church organizations and communities. William Shirer's "Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" is one of many sources that describes the Nazi long term plan to gradually replace Germany's entire Christian identity with a new Nazi/Aryan identity, to replace the cross with the swastika, the image of Jesus with the image of Hitler, etc.

You say: "Atheists make up the smallest percentage population of all the religions in the prison system in the US. Maybe it is the 'no atheists in foxholes' scenario. Or maybe atheists/humanists actually have a different set of ethics other than being scared to do the right thing because of the big guy watching everything."

Attila, I have no problem with intellectual atheism. "Some of my best friends are atheists." Atheists are a critically important part of our intellectual ecosystem. If my words above appear to suggest that I wish to abolish all traces of atheism, or that I believe every person must be religious, then please allow me to correct that misunderstanding here. I am asking only for acceptance of diversity of religious opinion. That must include acceptance of atheism, of course.

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