Apparently, religion is mostly pointless for liberals

By Amanda Marcotte
Wednesday, April 8, 2009 22:45 EDT
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I am sick to the teeth of the term “faith”, and its corollary “people of faith”. It’s always bothered me, but as I was taking a shower (where I do much of my deep thinking about stuff that annoys me, perhaps because I feel I’m symbolically washing the ick off), I realized why. It’s not just that it’s one of those transparent attempts at rebranding, though that’s part of it. It’s that by rebranding an institution—religion—as a trait, a value really, you imply that people who do not subscribe to that institution don’t have that value. The problem is that “faithful” has a couple of meanings. When “faith” is used as a substitute for the old-fashioned word “religion”, it means that the person is “faithful”, in that she has faith in god. The problem is the word also means steadfast, loyal, true, etc., and I have no doubt that one reason to use “faith” instead of “religion” is to borrow the connotations. It also implies that people who aren’t religious don’t have all these qualities of steadfastness, loyalty, honesty, etc. If these sorts of connotations weren’t being brought to bear, then there would be no reason to switch the terms from “religion” to “faith”.

But Amanda, I imagine you’ll say, you insult religious people all the time by calling religion a superstition and making jokes about the Sky Fairy. This is true. But in my defense, I far prefer the straightforward insult over passive aggressive shit like the word “faith”, and my critiques rely on the specific problems I have with religion. I don’t need to imply that you cheat on exams and on your wife to suggest that your religious beliefs are wrong. This, I think, is an important distinction.

I mention this, because Obama’s following the snappy faith trend with his Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and to the dismay of religious liberals, the council fit every stereotype we crabby feminist atheists could have come up with.

With his Council appointments now complete, Obama has given far more seats on his Council to religious leaders who are anti-choice than to ones who are openly pro-choice, even though the majority of Americans favor legal abortion. There are only two pro-choicers, and they’re both Jewish. Reproductive health advocates suggested several pro-choice Christians to the White House as worthy additions to the council. By not giving them seats, though, the administration shows that it is too afraid to challenge anti-choice evangelicals by putting their pro-choice brothers and sisters at the same table.

And of course, they’re mostly men. What’s sad to me is that this surprises anyone, because one of the major draws to religion is that it’s a remarkable cover story for plain old lady-hating. Oh, I know, religious readers. I’m not ignoring you. There are many other things religion provides. In a show of good faith (because contrary to what the name of government initiatives imply, we atheists have it), I made a list of the four major things that motivate people to set aside an appreciation for the indifferent universe to follow a religion.

Spirituality. I hear this a lot, and I think the needs that get defined as spiritual do exist. But I tend to think those needs can largely be met by having interesting, meaningful work (and if you can’t get that as paid employment, many hobbies offer it), love in your life, and an appreciation for the vastness and complexity of the world. Though many people get spiritual needs met through church, the fact that you can get them met elsewhere means that a lot of people who have these needs are going elsewhere.

Fellowship/community. This is a biggie, because our modern lifestyle doesn’t give us enough opportunities to find community, and churches make themselves very easy to find. That said, this is still a need that most people can find a way to meet elsewhere, so as a draw, this is just the second largest, and pales in comparison to the largest.

Identity. This probably keeps more people attached to a church than any other reason, because it’s tradition and it grounds them in their family and tribal identity. But let’s face it—you get this need met through holidays and the occasional big ritual like a wedding. That level of commitment isn’t the sort of thing that gives a person a reason to declare himself a “person of faith” and demand that the government abandon its constitutional duty to be secular in order to accommodate him. It also doesn’t give the churches enough financial backing to keep their doors open, and if it was left at this, religion would slowly fade away to be replaced by other markers of tradition and identity, such as the completely secularized Christmas that many Americans already celebrate.

You have a bunch of cherished and probably odious beliefs that have no basis in the material world that can be verified by science, and so you need a god to say that you’re right and everyone else is wrong neener neener. Sexism would be a good example of the kind of irrational belief that needs some sort of supernatural justification. “Godidit” works a lot better than trying to concoct even the most hackneyed evo psych theory of why women should be barefoot-n-pregnant. Since other needs are easily met elsewhere without giving up your ties to the rational world, this justification for religion is taking over the “faith” community at a pretty decent clip.

It’s also the only reason you’d need a council on faith-based anything in the government. If you’re religious for the other reasons, you don’t have any reason to resist a secular government that makes its decisions based on the principles of equality and freedom, with an emphasis on evidence and science when crafting policy. Your spiritual needs, fellowship needs, and identity needs don’t really come into play if women have the right to fuck without government interference and punishment. It’s only the sexist loonies trying to dress up their problems with women (or anyone else, for that matter) in more respectable clothing that have any need for this.

The religious liberals agitating to be on councils like this are mostly reacting at this point, and Disco Ball bless ‘em for it. It’s hard to see it from inside the maelstrom, but if they stepped back and thought about it, I’m sure they’d realize that they can only play the part of resistance to right wing machinations on councils like this, because if they were in charge, there’s be no point, really. They have more in common with the grouchy atheist set on the place of religion in government than they do with religious conservatives, which is to say that they’re largely against the government using its power to force people to live by religious dogma that we don’t agree with, such as bans on abortion and praying to a god we don’t believe in. They might want to agitate for broad values their church teaches, but often those values stand alone and don’t need religious justification, such as valuing peace and justice. Since their very existence on such a council is a reminder that such a thing shouldn’t even exist, no wonder they’re being edged out.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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