Religion is failing us, Part One

The Thinker by Rodin

We just finished Season 2 of NBC’s series The Good Place, which we are watching on Netflix. It’s a comedy of sorts on the afterlife, more specifically on our views of the afterlife. In this version, pretty much everyone ends up in “The Bad Place”, i.e. Hell. Four clearly flawed not so good people end up in The Good Place, or do they? I won’t spoil the plot if you haven’t watched it. Despite some flaws, the show keeps you reasonably engaged, and manages to be reasonably funny while gently lampooning our common notion here in the West about the binary nature of being “good” or “bad” with no allowance for ambiguity.

Here in Northampton, Massachusetts, where I live now, at the Bridge Street Cemetery, sits the grave of someone who would recognize these versions of Heaven and Hell. Our progressive city used to have strongly Calvinist roots. Anyhow, we have the remains of Jonathan Edwards, a colonial Calvinist theologian whose sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God you may have read when studying American history. Northampton has since gone all-progressive with (I’m not kidding you) rainbow colored striped crosswalks. We have probably the highest number of lesbians per capita in the country. If Edwards could arise from the grave, he’d probably figure he was in hell with all the same-sex couples here walking around holding hands.

For the most part though, Northampton is a very peaceful, civil and charming place, which is why we retired here. I’m inured to all the rampant homosexuality around me. That’s because while we have a disproportionate number of LGBTQA folks, the majority remains happily heterosexual. We quickly learned that same sex couples holding hands were no threat to us. But you don’t have to drive too far out of Northampton to find plenty of Trump voters. It’s the furthest thing from Sodom and Gomorrah around here.

I can’t say the same thing about El Paso or Dayton, Ohio. Both cities suffered mass shootings recently in less than twenty-four hours. Twenty were killed in or around an El Paso Walmart yesterday by what looks like a 21-year-old white guy from Dallas with a rifle, trying to save White America somehow. Naturally he’s a Trump supporter. Around 1 a.m this morning, a gunman killed nine people and injured 26 others in Dayton. He had a 223-caliber magazine and body armor, which let him unleash mayhem quickly. Fortunately, police were nearby and managed to kill him pretty quickly. We don’t know yet this shooter’s age, race or motives, but there’s an excellent chance he is young, white and a Trump supporter too.

It’s American carnage, Trump-style. Trump is pushing all the buttons to unleash these horrors by his most unhinged supporters.

Religion is supposed to give us a way to not just cope with life, but to improve it. It’s clearly not keeping pace with the pace of change all around us. The response of many religions is to double down on their articles of faith, but doing so seems to unleash only more of the crazy.

America is rife with “Christianity”, but for the most part doesn’t actually practice Christianity. Frankly, religion is failing us. A belief system oriented around a world where most of us were serfs and reported to a lord doesn’t work well in the 21st century. Watching The Good Place, it’s hard not to ask why so many of us still believe these antiquated notions of heaven and hell.

What passes for Christianity these days is largely crazy and destructive. A majority of Christians in our country are clearly Trump supporters. They clearly approve of most of his policies, including separating families at the border and keeping children in cages and people in crowded, inhumane conditions. These days you can only act as a Christian to someone who is a member of your church. All others can be other-ized as not quite human. These “Christians” find “salvation” (comfort) in conformity and closed-mindedness. They want religion to impose order on a world when in fact doing so makes it worse. Christianity is breeding hatred and intolerance. It is making us less Christian every day.

No wonder so many Millennials are giving up on religion altogether. It’s not improving things, and it’s obviously phony and it’s hypocritical. But also Christianity is a very hard religion to practice, at least as Jesus taught it. It requires an open heart and love toward everyone, particularly those most unlike you. It’s clear that most Christians simply cannot and will not go there. It requires giving your treasure to the least of us. It requires you to act contrary to your nature. It requires you to constantly summon your better self and step outside your boundaries and prejudices. Most of us simply can’t, which simply drives cognitive dissonance that charlatans like Donald Trump are using for their own purposes. It feeds that chaos, the narrow-mindedness and the bigotry that is all around us.

Religion needs to be redefined for modern times. Perhaps we are better without it. Making the present try to fit the ideas of a far past is destroying us.

The never-ending story

The Thinker by Rodin

What more is there to say about this latest mass shooting in Orlando that I haven’t said many times in many other posts? 49 people dead, 50 including the gunman, and more than that injured. This incident has the dubious distinction of being our worst mass shooting in modern history.

There have been worse shootings, if you include Wounded Knee (146 Native Americans dead, and by our own government), possibly the Tulsa Race Riot or pretty much any Civil War battle. At the time those who knew about Wounded Knee were all for it. Indians were not seen as our friends in the 19th century; they got in the way of Manifest Destiny. You’d be hard-pressed to find any Civil War battle that didn’t have at least fifty deaths, which is why this incident is being so carefully qualified.

Most of us normal Americans might like to see a little action for a change rather than our usual inchoate rage that once again will mean nothing will get done to prevent future incidents. That’s currently underway in the United States Senate where Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy started a filibuster to get the Senate to take some action. Democrats seem willing to sustain the filibuster, at least for a while. Even if they get their way, any “gun control” will be so modest as to be laughable. What’s being floated is putting a 72-hour wait on assault weapons purchases by anyone on the terrorist watch list. Any bill that comes out is likely to include a provision that failed last December: to take away federal funding from any city that declare themselves “sanctuary cities”, i.e. don’t allow their police to enforce federal immigration law.

There are a few new things about this latest incident to note. One, this demonstrates that having a good guy with a gun won’t necessarily fix the problem of a bad guy with a gun, so the NRA has been proven wrong on this. There was an Orlando cop on the premises of the Pulse nightclub where these mass deaths and injuries occurred. The Pulse caters to the LGBT and Hispanic community in Orlando. The incident spanned about three hours. The tightly packed nightclub made whatever the officer could do very limited. A semiautomatic rifle trumps anything a police officer is going to keep in their holster. Most of these semiautomatic rifles are capable of magazines with thirty bullets, and it’s not hard to unleash a bullet a second. They are in effect automatic weapons, thus extremely good at inflicting mass casualties very quickly.

There is at least one story of heroism so far: a Marine veteran that opened a back door so others could escape. More such stories are likely in the days ahead. There are also some peculiarities. The assailant, Omar Mateen, had been seen at the club many times and had apparently at least tried to pick up men at the club. So he may well have been gay. It’s possible that cognitive dissonance between his gay identity and his Muslim teachings was central in the carnage that he unleashed.

Mateen may have had been a practicing Muslim, but he was no more a foreign jihadist than my mother (born in Bay City, Michigan) was a Polish immigrant: he was born in New York City, just down the road from where Donald Trump entered the world. It was obviously made tremendously easier because of the easy access in this country to weapons of mass destruction. Mateen used a Sig Sauer MCX, proudly manufactured here in the USA in New Hampshire. It is also likely that Mateen had zero contact with ISIS, who he pledged allegiance to shortly before the attack. This was a Made in America attack.

Some things look sadly familiar. Mateen was relatively young and male and as we see over and over again this is the demographic typical of these mass shooters. However, he wasn’t white and he was a Muslim American (parents from Afghanistan), which is why many assumed he was a terrorist trained by ISIS or Al Qaeda, which Donald Trump seemed to imply. And unsurprisingly there were caution flags all over the man, but not enough checks to keep him from working for a security firm or to easily acquire the semiautomatic weapons he used which he did shortly before the attack. The only thing really new here is the scale of the shooting. That Mateen was unbalanced and prone to violence is pretty obvious from reported episodes of wife beating.

In one of my first posts on gun control, I noted that simply possessing a weapon is dangerous. Possessing a semiautomatic weapon is much more dangerous than possessing a typical firearm because it can wreak much more damage much more quickly. I don’t own a gun not just because I am opposed to it in principle. I know myself well enough that it’s possible I could become mentally sick enough that I could use it, most likely to kill myself. No, I don’t have suicidal thoughts, but depression happens to most people. I’ve had a few mild bouts of it over the years. Prevention is so simple and the easiest one is simply not to own a gun.

Sane people like me though can do a lot to avoid being a victim. I’m unlikely to be attending a gay bar in the wee hours because I hate bars and I’m not gay. One reason I am living in Western Massachusetts is for its relative safety, in spite of Northampton where I live and its large and renown LGBT population. There is a lot of gun control here in Massachusetts. Semiautomatic weapons cannot be bought anywhere in the state, at least legally. Yes, we’ve had terrorist incidents like the Boston Marathon bombing. Curiously no semiautomatic weapons were used, perhaps because they are harder to acquire here.

A community with common sense gun laws is less likely to have these sorts of incidents. A community that shares these values is less likely to foster people attracted to these sorts of crimes. That sort of common sense is missing in Florida where just today reporters for the Huffington Post were able to acquire an AK-15 (similar to the gun used by Mateen) in just 38 minutes. It doesn’t surprise me that most of these incidents happen in states with loose gun laws.

Someday, probably when we have a Democratic House and Senate again, common sense gun laws may go national again. We’d best not hold our breath. History suggests that Mateen’s grisly record is likely to be broken long before we enact real gun control laws again.