Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Religion, Politics, Society, and Self-Identification

So I find myself at an interesting period of time. I am exiting a sabbatical from academic pursuits- the pause in my collegiate journey prompted by the Thanksgiving holiday. But, directly, I am entering an intensely rigorous scholastic period which will culminate with final exams at the end of the semester in a few short weeks. Meanwhile, so many outside interests are tugging at my focus that I feel like I am periodically going crazy and I couldn’t be happier about it.

Of those outside interests, the first I must mention is my University of South Florida Bulls football team which earned an invitation to the semi-prestigious Sun Bowl and an opportunity to play a yet to-be-determined Pac-Tem team. The game will be played in El Paso, Texas on New Years Eve and I have every intention of attending the game; figuring a method of funding such an endeavor is weighing heavily currently.

Meanwhile, I am still culling the situation with American University. They have offered me a pretty substantial financial package stoking any remaining desire to transfer there as early as this upcoming spring semester. While the likelihood of transferring so soon is null, I find myself keeping the option open because, perhaps, I am reminded of just how badly I wanted to attend AU just a few short months ago.

And then, on top of all that, I have another force tugging at me; my attempt to become Special Forces-qualified. I would argue that of all the factors building in my life currently, I have not thought about one as often or for as long as I have thought about this one. I am really obsessed with becoming an ODA team member. I could write volumes about my passion here and, in the future, via this medium, perhaps I may. However, I am simply mentioning this desire among the others to demonstrate how difficult it is currently to focus and compose something meaningful at an outlet such as this; Educated Soldier.

But this morning I will attempt to do just that.

In a religious studies course of mine that I find particular interest, it is the goal of the class to initiate the student into the varying methods of studying religion. Because of the sort of broad spectrum of subject matter, the student is exposed to a wide array of scholars. Because of this class, I have been reading Wach, Mueller, Frazer, Hume, Marx, Freud, Otto… etc. Through the works of these scholars, we are exposed to various techniques of understanding the phenomenon that is religion. It has become apparent that one can tackle religious thought through many scopes including those of history, anthropology, psychology, sociology, philosophy, theology, feminist theory and through many other disciplinary techniques.

The interesting part as related to the political nature of this blog is this: As I consider myself a budding “scholar” in the field of religion, I find my academic understanding of religion to be totally at odds with my most deeply held political stances. In a nutshell, I am finding that I hold to morals traditionally associated with Christianity but find Christianity, itself, to be – in all likelihood – false. Because of this contradictory dynamic, I want to consider the social evolution of religion as discussed by Frazer and William James.

Although this sort of synopsis completely shortchanges brilliant work, for our purposes I will explain the theories of Frazer and James in brief. Frazer argues that religion has developed as a social construct. Basically, early man developed certain mechanisms to understand the world in which he lived. When he found things to be tough to comprehend, he attributed their erratic behavior to magic. The answers that magic provided would soon be replaced by religion. Religion, however, eventually gave way to science which also answers some of the same basic questions about the world. Frazer might ask of the current world: With the abundance of science and technology available, why do religions continue to exist?

William James, on the other hand, diagnosed the need for religions psychologically. He compared religion to an opiate, a sort of pain killer that numbs man’s problems. James finds himself unsure through his academic pursuits about the legitimacy of real, genuine god(s). What he does recognize, however, is that people have genuine religious experiences and these experiences are highly significant for those undergoing them. James prescribes religion as a doctor does medicine. If religion allows you a happy vibrant life, than by all means, continue your faith. On the other hand, if the demands of your religious beliefs are battering you psychologically, it is wise to cease the source of the problems.

And, of course, both of these theories are tied to the sociological view that man produces his own religion. Berger and Feuerbach both do an outstanding job of solidifying theories that, more or less, suggest that man (actually society) creates religions from the internalized qualities of humans that are projected externally in the expression of god(s). And I mention all of these theories because, basically, I find myself agreeing with them. Here exists the problem.

Surely, many of the people that follow this site with any regularity might find it hard to believe that the author fails to agree on the existence of a god. I find the following dynamic peculiar: People tend to bind their beliefs in to pre-determined packages. This is to suggest that, historically, southern Christians tend to identify themselves as Republicans. As I travel through the university experience, I have come to realize that individuals who identify themselves as atheist, agnostic, or any way “counter-culture” in this regard identify with the Left. And then there is me.

While I find it easy to place myself into one of the pre-determined packages (I am explicitly and unapologetically Republican), I struggle with the details while inside. For example, turning away from religion as the focus, I can identify at times with Marx’s call for revolution. However, at the same time, I am completely baffled by his economical philosophy. Considering religion again, Marx suggests that – regardless of which religion you pursue – by fully placing oneself into such a belief system, one is enslaving themselves needlessly to their religion’s demands. I agree and I also agree that the revolutionary assailing of religion on philosophical grounds would be a welcome occurrence. But what Conservative, especially one that concurs so whole-heartedly with the economic principles presented by Friedman and Adam Smith, can walk in a path suggested by Marx? Moreover, on what grounds can one be fully Pro-Life yet both non-religious in nature and, admittedly, not moved by the “preciousness” of life? Can one despise abortion simply because of the moral standard that such an action produces? Finally, what is this nonsense about the lack of “atheists in foxholes” as they say? At the very least, I can promise that there has been at least one agnostic leaning forward in one of those very foxholes.

My original intention in writing this morning was to discuss the sociological aspects of religion because I find this method of studying religion fascinating. I guess, in some regards, I have met that objective. I can conclude on that topic by agreeing with the scholars mentioned above, many of whom would argue that religion is at least purposeful in the sense that it legitimizes the constructs that society creates. I would suggest that one keep in mind, however, that we (human beings) create society and are, therefore, responsible for the very values that lack the legitimacy that, apparently, only religion can provide.

The overwhelming result of this morning’s post however has been an attack on the methods through which we identify ourselves as humans. The attack wasn’t totally justified because I don’t find myself obsessing angrily about this particular human tendency with any regularity. But like so many other things that man does with or without observable rationalization, if this tendency was only overcome, man would be all the better off for its omission.

Anyway, hopefully, tomorrow I will be able to produce something a little less philosophical for those of you that didn’t find interest in this. I am hoping to add a response to the Republican debate that will be occurring, basically, in my backyard of St. Petersburg, Florida. See you then.