Freedom of A Secularist

Today I attended a presentation named “Freedom of a Christian” featuring Marilynne Robinson, a Pulitzer Prize winning author and liberal Christian apologist.

Actually to call her an apologist for her religion is a bit insulting. Yes, she says the same things most liberal apologists repeat over and over again, namely that people have been imperfect and that religion has given people a lot to be hostile about. And of course, it is quite hard to see through her layers and layers of metaphor, especially when we consider that she teaches the Bible as literature at a secular university and has to admit to her students that she “comes from a very certain cultural lens”.

Yet, in the middle of all this trite regurgitation of stock apologia comes a very profound thesis that is worth examining. Her project, it seems to me, is quite the opposite of what I see from the growing secular movement, for while we are generally concerned with bringing down idols that humans have erected, Robinson, on the other hand, wants to resurrect figures of the historical past, and defend and rebuild their reputations.

At stake is John Calvin and his influence on early New England (Puritan) culture, for which she argues that modernity has closed the door on this period and buried it under a cartoonish version of Puritanism that involves witch-burning and theocratic shackles. Robinson argues that it is exactly because of the law of Moses (who is apparently also misunderstood) that New Englanders were able to enact humane laws, or at least more humane than the fashionable ones in Europe.

These humane laws include the restriction that you could not hit anyone physically more than 40 times (which is humane when compared to many crueler standards in England). More importantly, she argues, Mosaic law very severely curtailed the number of crimes punishable by death, for which there were hundreds in Europe. Of course, she had to admit that this was not perfect, that things like blasphemy were still punishable by death.

I have absolutely no response to the argument that New England might have been a bastion of tolerance compared to its European counterparts, especially since I have very limited expertise in this area of history and since I’m quite positive that her knowledge about this greatly exceeds mine. What I will not accept, however, is the implication here that the roots of tolerance actually came from a divine source, directly inspired by the word of God.

What Robinson wants us to believe, in other words, is that a perfect supernatural being spoke directly to Moses, who in turn codified holy law into the Bible that included the death penalty for people who thought and spoke differently. Why Christian Europe even became theocratic is not at all mentioned, but apparently it might have all happened so that some settlers on the other end of the globe could erect a more ideal version of Christian society and implement a reinterpreted Mosaic law. And that’s supposed to be a great leap of human progress.

I didn’t have to hear her continuing talking about how there probably were witches burned in the South (making Salem “not-so-bad” after all) to realize that she doesn’t notice the collapsing logic of her own argument. The problem I have with ideas of progress like this is that seemingly progressive religious ideas are doomed to fail. Muslims will readily point to quotes in the Koran where women have some rights, but taken a whole, the supposed final revelation from the prophet Muhammed draws out a clear spectrum for the rights of women. , No matter how we try to interpret away passages we don’t like, nowhere in this spectrum lies the possibility of a full and equal role for women in society and in the family.

Nowhere in Biblical law, in Biblical inspiration, in Christian versions of freedom and tolerance will we see a full acceptance of things like nonbelief and homosexuality, for it is difficult enough for Christians to even catch up with the normal, secular sphere in the embrace of ideas like evolutionary change.

But I did enjoy the presentation, mostly because it wasn’t all nebulous liberal-Christian mush and offered a clear thesis that I could write about.

The inspiration of the day comes from an article by Paula Kirby from The Washington Post.

And yet we are invited to credit religion as the source of true freedom? It is a laughable claim, a disgraceful claim, a claim that makes a mockery of language as well as of truth and of human dignity. As such it is on a par with other religious claims, such as those that define perfect forgiveness as something dependent on the barbaric sacrifice-by-crucifixion of an innocent man, perfect justice as consisting in the innocent being tortured to death so the guilty can be let off scot-free, and perfect love as something that would damn us to hell for all eternity if we refuse to accept such grotesque monstrosities as evidence of a perfect and loving god.

True freedom requires us to liberate ourselves from the tyranny of religion as well as from the tyranny of brutal earthly regimes. True freedom involves the freedom to think, to explore, to grow; the freedom to pursue knowledge and learning, wherever they lead; the freedom to be different, not to conform; freedom from bigotry; freedom from ignorance; freedom to love and to express that love as we choose; freedom to be ourselves, to accept ourselves, warts and all, and to accept others on the same terms; freedom to choose our own meaning and purpose in life, and to make our own decisions on the basis of those free choices; freedom to make mistakes; freedom to change our mind; freedom from fear, especially from phoney fears invented by those whose only aim is to control us in word, thought and deed.

That, my friends, is the freedom of a secularist.


Posted on February 17, 2011, in Humanism, Religion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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