Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

Pastorpreneurs, Megamosques, Public Life

Posted by Dave Bath on 2007-11-09

Less polemical, less one-sided, and thus more damning of the growth in fervour of all religions than Dawkins and Hitchens are the lift-out "Special Report on Religion and Public Life" supplement in this week’s The Economist (2007-11-03) and the just-finished ABC series Children of Abraham.

Both the TV show and the lift-out point to the more traditional sects with intellectual discipline and salaried clerics, with an emphasis on nuanced messages and humanitarian action, as forces for good, while the "fundies", concentrating on numbers of adherents, are in general, destructive.

Of the two, The Economist presented the more interesting analyses and added new perspectives to the discussion – including an economic explanation of why the fundies (megamosques, pentecostal "pastorpreneurs" and Ultra-Orthodox jews) are more dangerous.

  • Clerics in hierarchical bureaucracies have philosophical and monetary governance, and are salaried, giving freedom to concentrate on good works.
  • The fundy clerics are more independent, have less oversight, and depend on "bums on seats" for funds, meaning they concentrate on attention-grabbing statements and attracting the most easily swayed (and less educated) followers.
  • In many ways it is analogous to the programming on the ABC versus commercial radio and TV which must attract advertisers by ensuring an uncritical, easily-convinced audience with low-brow and often sensationalist programming that appeals to popular prejudices.  The observations about Hillsong church and "Australian Idol" reflect their underlying natures, not statistical accident.

The nuanced analyses includes an argument why even fundies can sometimes have common ground with secular humanists in the promotion of democracy, and even US foreign policy:

Not all the religious right’s crusades overseas are loathsome to liberals.  American Christians have helped expose the Sudanese government’s atrocities in Darfur and sex-trafficking in Europe.

However, there is no way of resisting some amusing (and sometimes worrying) titbits in the rise of the religious fundies and the reaction of politicians.

  • Over half of US Christians cannot name the preacher who gave the Sermon on the Mount.
  • Chinese authorities have banned "unauthorized reincarnations", wierdly granting credence to the hypothesis.
  • Islam mirrors pentecostal methods with
    • the rise of megamosques,
    • wealthy celebrity televangelists,
    • pushing "creationism" in science classes,
    • and even online fatwahs in English – see, and!
  • Most "Christian Zionists" have no idea that many Palestinians are Christian.
  • US court decisions allow various levels of government to have nativity scenes, providing they have plastic reindeer and preferably a Santa Claus.
  • The rightly-feared "cell structure" of Islamic extremists, according to The Economist, is used by "Pentecostals the world over" in small groups of about a dozen people.

The fastest-growing "brands" are dangerous for a number of reasons, including:

  • They attract the least educated, most easily inflamed, and least critical of radical ideas that lead to violence.
  • Fundies have more children than moderates (Ultra-orthodox Israeli Jews have 3 times as many children as moderate or secular Israelis), which increases the relative number of immoderates, and also increases pressure on resources which adds to the likelyhood and extent of conflict.

That last factoid, the excessive contribution of fundies to an unsustainably large population, may make opposition to the fundies by humanists and religious moderates not only a philosophical issue, but an environmental issue that creates a moral imperative.

In fact, throughout the essays, I see many between-the-line arguments supporting my contention that religious moderates and secular humanists are natural allies, and both have an interest in arguing for increased religious education by clerics that are state-certified.

It’s amusing to see The Economist almost going hand-in-hand with Karl Marx, implying that religion may not be the opium of the people, but is perhaps the methamphetine of the masses.

The effects of religion on foreign policy do not only come through the political advantage to Presidents and Prime Ministers of selling military adventurism not in terms of realpolitik and energy policy, but by appealing to religious prejudices.

The second way in which religion thrusts itself into politics is inter-communal violence.  Once again, other forces are often at work, such as tribalism in Nigeria or nationalism in India.  But religion supplies the underlying viciousness.

The term "viciousness" is totally warranted.  Think how essentially territorial disputes in former Yugoslavia were inflamed by religious differences and led to full-fledged genocide.

Indeed, a graphic demonstrates that ongoing inter-communal and international conflict with religious overtones is more of a problem than the occasional attack by religious terrorists.

The failures of US foreign policy include not only the poor use of the fact of its own religious diversity, but a focus on nation-states: most Moslems, both moderate and immoderate, are not attached to the nation-state they happen to be in, but the "Umma", the international community of believers.

To me, this attachment to the "Umma" provides an opportunity for dialogue between Islam and the elite of the secular humanists who also believe in the universal community, the precedence of internationalism over the interests of individual nation states.

Another disturbing graphic details the reported experience of pentecostal Christians worldwide:

  • Over half believe they have witnessed miraculous healings.
  • Many have witnessed exorcisms.
  • In most countries, over half believe they have received direct messages from a deity.

Such beliefs worry me, not only because "exorcisms" are tantamount to torture, but when people "hear voices in their heads" or "see visions", I recall that there are no objective criteria enabling a differential diagnosis between religious ecstasy and schizophrenic hallucination: implying not only that there are many pentecostals who are deprived of appropriate medication and counselling, but there is an increased risk of violent crime because of the number of untreated psychotics in the community.

If the pharmaceutical industry must engage in "disease mongering", it would be better if, rather than medicalizing trivia like age-decreased libido, they tried selling more anti-psychotics by advocating that governments intervene and order medical investigation and treatment of everyone who reports anything approaching visual or auditory hallucinations.

In short, the sophisticates, the religious moderates and the half-billion declared non-believers (which The Economist notes makes atheism the world’s fourth largest religion), have much to fear from, and should take steps to stem the rise of simplistic religios sects.

I’ll finish with a quote that highlights the dangers to society, and even national security, from growth of the fundies, taken from these excellent essays in The Economist, a quote that impels all people of good will and intellegence to take stock of what is happening:

Philip Jenkins, one of America’s best scholars of religion, claims that when historians look back at this century, they will probably see religion as "the prime animating and destructive force in human affairs, guiding attitudes to political liberty and obligation, concepts of nationhood and, of course, conflicts and wars."  If the first seven years are anything to go by, Mr Jenkins may well turn out to be right.

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