All posts filed under: Religion

The Faith of Systemic Racism

We hear constantly about the systemic racism coursing through America. Everything, we’re told, is shot through with hate. It does not matter if no white person ever has actually thought a hateful thought. The structure, or system, these innocents inhabit and profit from was designed by those who hated with abandon; the hate is baked into the edifice and walls and rooftops. It constitutes an architecture of oppression, and the persistence of that architecture amounts to an indictment of its beneficiaries. They’re fools or, more likely, willing participants who go to inordinate lengths to camouflage their complicity—Dean Armitage of Get Out declaring he would have voted for Barack Obama a third time while living on a latter-day plantation.  Of course, if a system is nefarious, it must be blown up, and the bricks and rubble must be redistributed to the politically favored, and anyone who opposes that—anyone who does not loudly and enthusiastically embrace the new dogma—must be a tool of white subjugation. This is the not so hermetic logic of most every blue-chip multinational, …

As a Gay Child in a Christian Cult, I Was Taught to Hate Myself. Then I Joined the Church of Social Justice—and Nothing Changed

I grew up in the suburbs of Baltimore, Maryland, in a fundamentalist Christian community called The Lamb of God. What began in the mid-1970s as a small group of born-again hippies who played music, prayed together, and proselytized to whoever would listen about Jesus’s unconditional love and mercy, descended into authoritarianism in the 1980s after its founder linked up with the broader charismatic renewal movement that had been sweeping the nation. The Lamb of God’s doctrine became explicit—Christianity good; Islam, feminism, secular humanism, and Marxism bad; and the rules strict—complete submission of all members to the leadership, and of all wives to their husbands. My father was one of the five male leaders, or “coordinators.” My mother, though she had at one time been considered for the corresponding female role of “handmaid,” was never officially appointed to the position. This meant that she was excluded from the leadership’s official meetings, segregated by sex, in which coordinators and handmaids would discuss the goings-on of their underlings—who was having marital problems, who was doubting the faith, who …

Huxley, Burroughs, and the Church of Scientology

In the 21st century, Scientology has become a synonym for “cult.” Thanks to an array of investigative exposés and testimony from former members, few people in the Western world are unaware of at least some of the Church’s fantastical beliefs and more alarming behaviours. Sixty years ago, however, it was viewed quite differently. Scientology—or dianetics, as it was originally known—was an appealing idea to many intellectuals and creatives at a time when the world was rapidly changing and notions that had once been taken for granted were suddenly being tossed out of the window. In science, art, and philosophy, accepted norms were being turned on their heads, and in the 1950s and ’60s, L. Ron Hubbard’s ideas—peddled as an alternative to psychiatry—fit quite nicely among the emerging doctrines dreamed up by his contemporary thinkers. Indeed, the original concepts that launched Hubbard’s movement were not as outrageous as those that define it today. Among these, the idea of “engrams” and the “reactive mind” were perhaps the most appealing. Hubbard theorised that humans are marked by unconscious …

Standing up to the Social-Justice Mobs Within the Jewish Community

A black and Jewish diversity officer, April Powers, recently resigned from her post at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), after a mob descended on her for not mentioning Islamophobia in a statement she’d issued about the rise in anti-Semitism. “I neglected to address the rise in Islamophobia, and deeply regret that omission,” Powers said. “As someone who is vehemently against Islamophobia and hate speech of any kind, I understand that intention is not impact and I am sorry.” Even just a few years ago, such a cancellation would have seemed bizarre and outrageous—especially the suggestion that the morality of one’s actions may be judged according to their “impact,” as subjectively assessed by third-party activists. Neither would we have understood why decrying one form of bigotry without mentioning another is problematic. We have just witnessed a series of news cycles in which we have all been invited to decry bigotry against blacks, Asians, members of the LGBT community, and other groups. Was each of these population-specific calls to action also problematic? pic.twitter.com/BrAxWF2twV …

The Route to Re-Enchantment

The modern world cries out for definition. But only a handful of thinkers have been bold enough to answer the call, searching for that overarching essence which distinguishes the modern age from all that came before it. What does it mean to be Modern, as opposed to Medieval or Early Modern? Max Weber, the German sociologist, landed on the idea of Entzauberung, or disenchantment, when more than a century ago, he asked himself that question. Borrowed from Friedrich Schiller, the term disenchantment was meant by Weber to capture what it meant to live in the early 20th-century West, with its bureaucratic systems and secular rationalist values. This was a culture which, after the Enlightenment, had outgrown piety and religious myths. Past cultures, honouring their local religious stories, certainly regarded the world as “a great enchanted garden”; but modernisation was the process of replacing these bygone charms with the rational administration of society by scientifically minded bureaucrats. Science and reason, thought Weber optimistically, would guarantee freedom for the citizens of this disenchanted world. Weber had no …

The Purposeless Society

Humans are wired to think in terms of purposeful social agents and their objectives, and to tell themselves stories. In every culture, there are myths that tell its members who they are and how they relate to one another, that help to structure life and give it order. The idea that there is a crisis facing the West is by no means unique to conservatives. Classical liberals and technocrats lament the rise of populism and the loss of faith in their policy prescriptions, while progressives claim that the societies in which they live are built on foundations of violence, and must therefore be destroyed and remade. Conservatives place the genesis of the problem further back. Where others see systems and structures that must be dismantled or that are under attack, conservatives believe that the dismantling has already occurred and that we are now suffering the consequences. The destruction of traditional social structures with their strictures and obligations divides the world into two groups. The first experience it as a liberation of the individual, and use …

White Lotus, Red Dragon—China’s History of Millenarian Dissent

On a warm Wednesday evening in May 2014, six people walked into a McDonald’s in Zhaoyuan, on China’s north-east coast. Four of the group were members of the same family, including a 12-year-old boy. Within minutes of entering the restaurant, they had cornered a young mother and were beating her to death. The motive for this murder has never been satisfactorily explained, but state media would soon portray it as the latest act in a drama that has been unfolding for almost 2,000 years. The group had been harassing diners, asking for their phone numbers. When one woman refused and snapped at them to “go away,” they attacked her with a chair and mop handle. Bystanders were told that if anyone tried to interfere, they would be killed. Police arrived quickly but the attackers continued to batter the woman’s body, breaking their weapons in the frenzy, until they were arrested. Part of the incident was captured by an onlooker’s mobile phone and uploaded to the video sharing site Sohu, from where it went viral. The …

Sex, Drugs, and Antiquity

A review of The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion with No Name by Brian C. Muraresku. St Martin’s Press, 480 pages. (September 2020) A growing appreciation of plant medicines over the past few decades has allowed the media to shine a favorable spotlight on the previously proscribed use of ayahuasca, psilocybin, and other lesser-known plant allies in the “Age of Entheogens.” In the Entheogenic (“manifesting god within”) Era, for the first time since Nixon declared a “War on Drugs” 50 years ago, not only are entire universities and medical schools like Johns Hopkins conducting studies on these plants, but advocates are coming out of the most unlikely corners of the sober professional class to advocate for their proper use. One such professional is Brian Muraresku, a Jesuit-educated classics scholar, DC lawyer, and graduate of Brown University and Georgetown Law. He remains a “psychedelic virgin” but has nonetheless penned what will likely become a classic study of the ancient use of drugged beer and wine in the Near East and Europe, and the …

The Problem With ‘Indigenizing the University’

The idea that academics need to “Indigenize” the Canadian education system has become popular in recent years. The Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), Universities Canada, and the Deans of Education all have expressed support for this idea. And the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), created to address the legacy of Canada’s Residential School system, concluded that Canada’s education system “must be transformed into one that rejects the racism embedded in colonial systems of education and treats Aboriginal and Euro-Canadian knowledge systems with equal respect.” The TRC report cites the work of Indigenous academic Marie Battiste and the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’ statement that “Indigenous peoples have the right to the dignity and diversity of their cultures, traditions, histories and aspirations which shall be appropriately reflected in education and public information.” Specific proposals at various Canadian universities have included curriculum changes, an overhaul of academic disciplines, and the incorporation of Indigenous “ways of knowing” in tenure and promotion processes. Many …

Carl Th. Dreyer’s ‘Day of Wrath’ and the Power of the Punished

NOTE: This essay contains spoilers. Part of what makes Carl Theodor Dreyer’s greatest films so rewarding is their moral ambivalence. The Danish director’s oeuvre spans several decades, from the 1910s to the 1960s, but it was in his final three feature films, Day of Wrath (1943), Ordet (1955) and Gertrud (1964) that this theme became fully apparent. Gertrud can be read as a feminist liberation story or a compelling case against sexual liberation. Ordet might be an expression of religious truth, but it might also be anti-theist (it might even be both). Day of Wrath may be about the cruel persecution of innocent women accused of witchcraft, but it can also be read as a story about the evil of witches and the strange benevolence of their flawed persecutors. I sympathise with Dreyer’s uncertainty. It is difficult to believe in heaven, but it is also difficult not to believe in a heaven. This paradoxical sensibility appears repeatedly in Dreyer’s work. He speaks for the undecided—those who see something wondrous but are blinded and confused by …