27 July 2011

Eddie and the LongFellows

In light of the newest accusations against Bishop Eddie Long, I thought it would be timely to re-post a prior Decatur News Online column of mine from back when news first broke of Bishop Long's alleged offenses. To wit:

I’ve been out of town this week, so I’ve missed all the Sturm und Drang about the accusations swirling around Bishop Eddie Long and his alleged harem of young men from his youth group known as the LongFellows (puns abound, but I’ll refrain).

My faithful readers know I’ve written about Bishop Long previously, criticizing the prosperity gospel and his mansion and his fleet of limousines. But now there’s a new potential blot on his flowing robes. Now there are four young men accusing him of sexual impropriety. And I’m very intentional about saying “potential” and “accusing”, because as an attorney I’m very conscious of our sacred concept of the accused being innocent until proven guilty. Much as I’d like to see Bishop Long (or any hypocrite) knocked off of his high pulpit, I’m doing my best to resist that while he’s still innocent.

And why is it that I want to see him knocked off of his pedestal? Is it simply because I’m so pure that I can delight in the downfall of hypocrites? Somehow I doubt that. That would imply that I myself am not a hypocrite, that I’m not someone who calls for a high moral tone and a grand degree of enlightenment all the while wallowing in moral mediocrity and fuzzy perceptions.

There’s a fancy German word (is there any other kind?) for this concept: Schadenfreude. Basically, Schadenfreude refers to pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others. And isn’t is pleasurable to see people on their high horses knocked off their mounts, especially when you don’t think they have any right to be up there?

Mind you, when it comes to preachers who rail against homosexuality only to be found guilty of their own purported sin, it’s quite easy to rejoice in their downfall. And when said preachers organize retreats and conferences to “cure” people of their homosexuality, and when they stage marches and invoke the name of great civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in support of their discrimination in the name of God, it’s very hard not to root against them.

I really want Bishop Long to fail in his endeavors, because I believe them to be ill advised and contrary to the path of enlightenment. But if I am to be a true practitioner who walks in the light, I should refrain from rejoicing in his possible downfall. I should not take pleasure in his pain. But I really want to!

Why? Why is it so satisfying to me to revel in the flaws of self-proclaimed, self-aggrandizing holy men?

I think it’s probably because I like to project everything I can conceive of as evil onto a shadow figure, which makes me no better than those who rail against homosexuality. I believe that many religious ultra-conservatives who are upset about homosexuality are motivated by fear of the unknown, or fear of something different, or simply fear of the Other. I see the Shadow as a solid explanatory archetype: In brief, it’s essentially that part of a person’s psyche that is repressed, denied, and is home to many of our darker tendencies.

We like to project our own Shadows onto other people or groups of people. This usually manifests itself in our establishing of dualities in the world, often in some sort of we/they grouping wherein we assign all undesired traits to “they”. Note that the Shadow isn’t necessarily limited to an individual person – it can also be applied by one group of folks to another group. In other words, we thrive on enemies, because they allow us to project our own darkness onto some other group of people (‘the Other”).

For the religious ultra-conservatives who deplore homosexuality, the LGBTQ community is their current hot-topic “Other”. I’m not suggesting that all homophobes are repressed closeted homosexuals (but there definitely are a few, and perhaps Bishop Long is one of them). I am suggesting that for whatever reason, these religious folks have decided that much of what’s wrong with today’s society can be ascribed to the growing tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality.

In order to escape from this cycle of repression and projection, consciousness, self-awareness, and self-knowledge are key. As Jung himself put it:

The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge.

Would that Bishop Long and his ilk could come to that same sense of enlightenment, that they would realize that repressing their own Shadow only forces it to emerge in damaging ways. And would that we would all do so likewise.

20 July 2011

Religion and Politics Roundup

As the Presidential campaign starts up, it’s time for the silly season of the confluence of religion and politics to begin. I might try to keep up with this throughout the campaign, but I fear it could be a full-time job, and until someone starts paying me to do so I won’t be able to devote the time necessary to cover the religion-and-politics silliness in full detail. Thus, I’ll be relying on the good reporting of others in this article.

Let’s start with Michele Bachmann, whose husband, Dr. Marcus Bachmann, runs a counseling center in Minnesota that has received criticisms regarding its practice of “reparative therapy.” For those of you unfamiliar with the term, reparative therapy is a Christian counseling approach to homosexuality in which the therapist attempts to “cure” homosexuals of their same-sex attraction. In short, it’s the “pray the gay away” therapy.

Thanks to some nice undercover reporting by John Becker, it’s pretty clear that despite Dr. Bachmann’s prevarications on the topic, his clinic definitely practices reparative therapy. This approach is, of course, rejected by all the leading psychological organizations, including the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the American Counseling Association.

So Dr. Bachmann, husband of Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, has some religious beliefs that are contradictory to all current scientific research. That’s enough in itself, but here’s the real kicker, as noted by Mr. Becker in his article:

Based on my experiences at Bachmann & Associates, there can no longer be any doubt that Marcus Bachmann’s state- and federally-funded clinic endorses and practices reparative therapy aimed at changing a gay person’s sexual orientation, despite the fact that such “therapy” is widely discredited by the scientific and medical communities.

That’s right, the loudly anti-government Michele Bachmann personally profits (via her husband’s clinic) from state and federal government funds that flow to his clinic with its flawed, religious-based nonsense. To put it another way, your and my tax dollars support this nonsense.

Next up: Herman Cain. Mr. Cain, another GOP Presidential candidate, is all about freedom and liberty, at least until it comes to Muslims, as he has sided with opponents of the construction of a new mosque in Murfreesboro, TN. From a recent interview on Fox News Sunday:

Chris Wallace (host): "So, you're saying that any community, if they want to ban a mosque..."

Herman Cain: "Yes, they have the right to do that.”

Why does Cain believe it’s OK to ban mosques? Because "Islam is both a religion and a set of laws -- Sharia laws. That's the difference between any one of our traditional religions where it's just about religious purposes." For Cain, it’s a matter of the separation of church and state. I wonder if he applies this same separation of church and state to Christians who want to impose their religious beliefs and moral codes on the entire country? Let’s see, where could we go to find out more about that? How about Cain’s campaign website:

Our Founding Fathers recognized a higher power in the formation of this nation…
It was no accident that in some of our earlier years as a free and independent nation that our leaders added “In God We Trust” to all of our currency.
We are free because “In God Is Our Trust.”

So according to Herman Cain, we shouldn’t allow religion to influence the laws of our nation, except when we should.

Next: Rick Perry, Governor of Texas and undeclared (at least for another day or two) Presidential candidate. This guy is scary, because if he does enter the race he’ll stand a decent chance of winning the nomination. Governor Perry is organizing a “gathering of prayer and fasting” for the nation on August 6. According to Perry’s own words from the event’s website:

Right now, America is in crisis: we have been besieged by financial debt, terrorism, and a multitude of natural disasters. As a nation, we must come together and call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles, and thank Him for the blessings of freedom we so richly enjoy.
Some problems are beyond our power to solve, and according to the Book of Joel, Chapter 2, this historic hour demands a historic response…There is hope for America. It lies in heaven, and we will find it on our knees.

Now, if you want to pray for our country, I’m fine with that. What troubles me is that an elected official wants to direct and lead us in prayer, and in specific types of prayer with a specific religious focus and devotion. There’s also a hint of some more troubling beliefs in Perry’s reference to the Book of Joel. That’s a touchstone for a group known as the New Apostolic Reformation. For some great background on this group, I’d recommend this fine article in the Texas Observer, or if you’d rather, you can watch Rachel Maddow’s take on it.

Among the members of the New Apostolic Reformation and endorsers of Perry’s Response gathering (and implicitly of his impending bid for the Presidency) are:

·      John Hagee, whose endorsement John McCain explicitly renounced in 2008 after some of Hagee’s sermons came to light in which he referred to Hitler as an instrument of God chosen to gather the Jews in Israel.
·      Peter Wagner, who blames Japan’s economic doldrums on the Emperor’s consorting with the Sun Goddess. Seriously. “The Sun Goddess visits him in person and has sexual intercourse with the Emperor. It's a very, very powerful thing…Since the night that the present emperor slept with the Sun Goddess, the stock market in Japan has gone down. It's never come up since.”

I don’t know how you even begin to wrap your head around such beliefs, but apparently Rick Perry manages to do so. This is one potential President who might force me to emigrate to Sweden in 2012.

Here’s my punch line (borrowed from my spouse’s thoughts): It’s a really bad sign when the Mormon Presidential candidates seem like the normal fellows in the race.

07 July 2011

Why People Pray

Editor's Note: As some have already pointed out, I was not clear enough in this article about what kind of prayer I was referring to (see Michael's insightful comment below). Here I'm examining only the petitionary or supplicatory prayer, the one that asks the Divine for specific things. There are entire realms of meditative practices (including "relational" prayer, intended to bring one closer to one's deity) that aren't the subject of this post. Apologies for not dealing with that better initially.

I'm occasionally bewildered about why people pray, in the face of so much evidence that prayers are often unanswered. And yes, I know all the standard orthodox responses to such a statement, including “God always answers prayers, but sometimes His answer is 'No,'” or, “God's wisdom is beyond human understanding,” or even “God gives us what we need, not what we want.”

These responses would be less lame if they weren't often used in the context of horrible events. Whether it's prayers for the cure of someone's terminal illness, or prayers for someone's safety, or prayers for the end of wars, devotees will fall on their knees (or click on their Facebook and Twitter pages) and pray for a positive outcome of a particular situation. As often as not, these devotees will ultimately be disappointed.

You might expect that after being disappointed time and again by their deities, the devotees would either lose faith or perhaps consider the possibility that divine intervention is not a genuine phenomenon of life. And yet they persist. Adherents of numerous religious traditions around the world supplicate their chosen deity/deities, hoping for divine favor in their hour of need.

So why do they do it? Because sometimes it works, or at least sometimes it appears to work.

Mind you, I'm not interested (at the moment) in rendering judgment on whether divine intervention does occur, or whether the prayers of the faithful really are answered by their divinity, or even whether one can change the structure of water molecules by directing certain energy or music toward them. What I find more interesting in this context is the motivation behind the faithful's supplications. If your god answers your prayers on a seemingly random basis, intuitively that seems a reason to stop praying and just allow your god to work on his own whims.

Surprisingly enough, however, the seeming randomness of answered prayers is exactly the motivation for the devotees' behavior. In behavioral psychology, this is known as variable (or random) intermittent reinforcement. Of all the types of reinforcement schedules, it is by far the most potent.

In experiments with lab rats, researchers demonstrated that providing reinforcement to the rats' behaviors (usually dispensing food pellets in response to pressing a lever) on a random schedule was much more successful in training the rats to perform said behavior than was merely providing reinforcement for each instance of the behavior, or even reinforcing the behavior on a regular schedule (every 5th or 10th, e.g.).

This explains why gambling is such an addictive behavior for some. Imagine yourself watching a room full of people playing slot machines. Eventually, someone is going to hit a big jackpot. There's really no way of knowing which person, or which machine, is going to have the next payout. But you know that one will, eventually. So people keep putting coin after coin in the machines, pulling that lever again and again in hopes that they'll receive a big jackpot (the human equivalent of food pellets).

Gamblers also tend to exhibit superstitious behavior. They'll often wear “lucky” clothes, or use a particular slot machine, or say or do something out of the ordinary in hopes of bolstering their good fortune. They engage in these rituals based on the belief (spoken or not) that they might have some effect on their desired outcomes.

Am I calling God a celestial slot machine? Perhaps. But again, that's a discussion for another time. I really am simply interested in what motivates these supplicants, why it is that they can continue to have faith in the face of such a mountain of evidence to the contrary.

Yes, they believe because they want to believe, because facing the universe with a benevolent, omnipotent deity on your side is a lot more reassuring than facing the universe alone. It's a cold hard world out there, and it's not for the existentially timid. But they also believe because of how we're all neurologically hard-wired.

And so religion goes on. Devotees pray and pray and pray, and every once in a while, one of those prayers yields what appears to be a miraculous (or at least highly unlikely) outcome. Word of this miracle spreads like wildfire among the faithful. Others are motivated to pray even more devoutly, hoping that if their god answered one prayer, he just might look down with favor upon their requests also, hoping that they too can hit the prayer jackpot.