Archive for September, 2008

The Psychology of Christianity Part I

Blogger’s Note:

The following article is not meant to provide a comprehensive philosophical dissection of the religious establishment of Christianity, but to merely postulate my own observations and theories as to the psychological underpinnings and ramifications that exist within the structure of modern Christianity. Having been an “insider,” at one point, I feel that I am in a good position to report on some of the common themes and fundamental innerworkings of this religious juggernaut. My interest is in the psychology behind it, rather than proposing a counter-theology, or antithesis to Christianity.

I am sure that, despite my best efforts to promote an intellectual presentation of these concepts, there will be those who will take offense to them and will therefore, rush to defend their precious Christianity. To that fact, I will only say this: Any belief system worth believing in should stand up to scrutiny and be subject to review. All too often, people blindly devote themselves to a cause without really understanding it or why they have bound themselves to a particular ideology. If you are easily offended by a critique of Christianity, ask yourself why. If you are secure in your beliefs, then it shouldn’t matter what anyone says to the contrary. Plus God is big enough to defend Himself, right?

To clarify a few necessary points, and hopefully avoid tedious rebuttals and interjections over semantics, I will spell out my definitions of commonly used phrases such as “Christian, Christianity, God, Church, Heaven, Hell, prayer, Born-Again.
Here are my definitions as follows:

Christian– a person that professes to follow the teachings of the Bible, and respectively consider it to be the “word of God.”

Christianity– a religious cultural movement based on the Judeo-centric teachings of the bible.

God*- or as I like to refer to it as “the big ‘G.'” The God character of the Bible, who is presumably the creator of all existence, who is incidentally omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent, which is to say, all-powerful. Not to be confused with the little ‘g’ god(s) of a lower order. *When referring to the accepted Christian interpretation of the God of the Bible, I will refer to this entity in the masculine “He,” “Him,” “His,” etc., to keep in tradition with the Bible.

Church– not only the building that houses Christians during services but the Church Body Politic itself. When referring to the latter, I will use the pro-noun version for clarity.

Heaven– the eternal realm where God exists outside of time. This is often interpreted as eternal paradise where most Christians believe they will finally end up after Judgment Day.

Hell– where everyone else is destined to end up. An eternal realm of separation from God, where occupants will be subjected to torment, suffering, and everlasting damnation.

Prayer– one way communication with God. This usually takes the form of requests to God for the perceived needs of self and others. This is not to be confused with a dialogue with God, which by definition is a two-way conversation.

Born-Again– this is the status of a person after accepting Jesus into their life. They are essentially re-born into a new life of devotion to Christ and the Church, thus someone who is “Born-Again” becomes a practicing Christian.

A Word on Christians

The name ‘Christian’ is supposed to signify a follower of Jesus Christ and his teachings. However, this title can be misleading. While the early Christian church was formed from the cult of Christ that originated with the 12 disciples, modern Christianity has strayed from the teachings of Jesus in some amazingly fundamental ways. One such way is the philosophy of mainstream churches concerning money. A common thread of teachings among especially evangelical middle class Churches is the emphasis of monetary and material prosperity among members who tithe. This trend is supported by a singular, rather obscure verse in the Old Testament (Malachi 3:10), which actually considers tithes in this context to be food.

This practice of money-hoarding by the Church, is blatantly at odds with Jesus’ philosophy concerning money, and also betrays the lack of faith in God to provide what is needed. Bible literature is replete with examples of Jesus’ recognition of the corrupting effect that money can have on people, and therefore maintained a rather consistent position on the rejection of materialism (see such verses as: Luke 16:13, Mark 10:17-25, Matthew 16:24-26). The accumulated wealth of the church was to be used for charitable purposes. Where is the televangelist that has committed him- or herself to a life of poverty, and where are his/her followers? One only need visit a large modern church to observe the lavish facilities, cars, equipment, and production materials that good money can buy.

This double-standard has not only strayed off-course from a very straightforward precept that Jesus taught and practiced, but also has the effect of reducing Christianity to a mere designer religion. Believers can cherry-pick which teachings best fit their lifestyles and there are just as many churches that exist to accommodate any belief. Just as Western civilization has created an arena for seemingly limitless accommodation, this is true for the Church as well. Such avenues of Christianity I call Americanized Christianity, or Westernized Christianity. If the goal and purpose of a Christian, is to closely follow and practice the teachings of Jesus, wouldn’t it be important to mimic ALL of them as laid out by the Gospels regardless of the fickle cultures of the times?

In fact, Christianist would be a more accurate title for the modern churchgoers who are enchanted with Christ and of Judeo-centric culture. I define a Christianist as someone who is infatuated with the dogma and syntax of the culture that rose out of the cult of Christ, rather than a true practitioner of Christ’s direct teachings. For example, by my definition, a true Christian would emulate Christ in word and deed, and not rely on the interpretations given to them by their clergy or apocryphal text such as Paul’s letters in the New Testament. A Christianist, by contrast, would approach the study of Christ much like a historian, incorporating the ever-evolving mythos of Christian-centric culture into their own beliefs. They are more interested in Christianity than Christ. This is, arguably, the approach that many modern so-called Christians take.

Just because one is “Born-Again,” it doesn’t mean that they cease to be a regular person, or lose bestial impulses, or are now protected under some sort of supernatural forcefield that keeps their desires away. In my experience, I have seen quite the contrary. Christianity gives a person a pious mask to wear in front of others, while inside, the person is still driven and tempted by the gamut of human desires and emotions that non-Christians are subject to. The pressure to “act the part” is compounded by the expectations from society to “fit the role,” and may be the force behind “binge sinning” that is so widespread among ostensible “Believers.” Or perhaps it is simply that their normal human behaviors come to the surface more visibly because they have taken the path of religious idealism.

This brings me to an important observation of the practice of dissociation among Christians. There has been a movement in recent years to make Christianity more user-friendly. One such method has been to euphemize certain name associations. Christians have become “Believers,” the more authoritarian, “Scriptures” are used in place of the Bible, Jesus has been traded for the monarchical “Lord,” and Satan or the Devil have been ambiguously re-labeled the “Enemy.” This softening of traditional names not only has had the effect of dissociation from, perhaps, negative connotations that these names have historically implied, but also to return the Bible story to a more archetypal form, much like the Jedi “Force” in the Star Wars mythos. This euphemization has had the subtle but powerful effect of appealing to the broader humanistic sensibility towards myths.

Christianity as a myth

To study the psychology of Christianity, we must understand the power of the myth as a function within a society. I use the term myth to signify symbolism and imagery that permeates through culture and time. From ancient myths such as Beowulf, Homer’s Odyssey, and the Epic of Gilgamesh, to the modern myths of the comic book superheroes Superman, Spiderman, and Batman, the power of the myth has lost none of its potency to inform, entertain and teach us. Common myths have been passed along through generations and seem to cross barriers of differing races and cultures, presenting common themes and lessons.

The Bible, as it is contemporarily presented, is one such myth. But more accurately, it is a myth derived from previous myths. Many of the stories contained within the Bible have more ancient origins and have been adapted and mutated over the years, but this fact is hardly, if at all, recognized within the ranks of the “Believers.” The one “book” that is the Bible is actually comprised of several “books” and letters that have been authored by many and compiled over centuries. It was only through the organization and political influence of the Roman empire, which was incidentally a man-made institution, that gave birth to the compilation known as the Bible. This point is historical fact, but rarely scrutinized or acknowledged by the average “Believer.” Once again we are presented with the practice of cherry-picking and convenient denial of important facts by “Believers” as to the foundational structure of Christianity.
This is important because in most cases, the “Believer” will resort to the Bible as the final authority on any matter, whether they interpret it literally or allegorically. This practice would be similar to pointing to Homer- and Plato’s epic storytelling of the Greek gods as a final authority on spiritual and moral matters. To contemporary Christians, this idea would be ludicrous, but strangely, they see no connection between the abandoned arbitrary worship of the dim gods of the ancient world, and the similar faith of Christians in mythological storybook heroes.

The Bible borrows its creation story from a much older version that originated in ancient Mesopotamia, most notably elements from Ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, and Sumerian cultures. There are many creation stories from the ancient world and there are also various recognized “Cradles of Life,” Mesopotamia being only one of which. Is it just mere coincidence that the world’s most dominant religion sprang from the part of the world that birthed the first empires? This is a testament to the exploitative nature that influential civilizations have on their subjugates, rather than the power of the message itself (the Bible). When Christianity became the standard of the land, it only needed be enforced and imposed by its zealous followers.
Still other myths and rituals taken from surrounding cultures were incorporated into the mythos of Christianity in order to better assimilate the heathens and pagans, making a smoother transition for the potentially converted. Christmas and Easter are perfect examples of how Christian and pagan traditions were blended to bring together different ways of spiritual practice in order to bring more followers into the fold. This once again illustrates the “designer” appeal of Christianity, and also its adaptability as a “borrower” of other traditions.

Coming Soon: Part II: Christians, God, The Bible, and Faith

A Vote Of No Confidence

Posted: September 15, 2008 in Politics

As I watched the conventions of the Democratic and Republican parties unfold, I was reminded once again of just how similarly America’s two top parties operate. Sure, on the surface they present ideological dissimilitude, but deep down it’s just the same show; different day. The same pandering, the same grand proclaimations of reform (now even McCain is dropping the ‘C’ word, change), the same dog-and-pony show filled with lights, multi-million dollar productions, and heavy make-up, the same grandstanding by glad-handing politicians, and regrettably, the same sycophantic dorkery from manic delegates in the audience.

2008 has certainly been an exciting year for politics, but as I watched televised coverage of the conventions, the events more closely resembled a Spice Girls concert rather than a sobering rally for change. It was painful to sit through the drawn-out speeches that were punctuated with endless disruptive standing ovations by the over-eager onlookers. I must admit that the points of the speeches were almost lost to me and the whole mess was reduced to a glorified pep rally for politicogeeks (Illinois State Fighting Donkeys RULE!!). But when the stadium lights have faded, the IMAX rental video screens returned, and the rabid delegates go back to the woodwork from whence they emerged, what does all of the grandstanding mean for us?

It is relatively easy to get a crowd fired up, if you know how to work them if your speech-writers and focus groups have done their jobs. Modern politics have become such a science that pending outcomes and results have been relegated to mere formality and predictable projections. This paradigm relies more on the tried-and-true tested methods of public relations than good old fashioned pavement-pounding aggrandizement. There’s nothing new at work here. Remember the multi-million dollar set piece of the aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Lincoln, that George W. Bush used as the backdrop for his pre-maturely proclaimed “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED” gaffe? It is widely known now, that this was a PR campaign used to bolster support for the war. All that is needed is a theme song, some flashy lights, a backdrop of perceived accomplices, and the appearance of success, and the public is easily duped. “It’s a pageant,” as Robert DeNiro’s spin doctor Conrad Brean deftly describes the false set of circumstances that he perpetrates on the public in the political satire, Wag The Dog. It’s all theater. It’s all a show. It’s all a cleverly crafted campaign to win the hearts and minds of American perception.

So why is this particular voting cycle so important? If you are a Democrat, Moderate, Libertarian, or even a good ‘ol fashioned Lincoln Republican, my guess is that you are fed up with the massive failures of the Bush administration. These failures are pretty widespread and sweeping such as, fiscal irresponsibility, lack of accountability, unsurpassed executive power, unprecedented deficits, and a rather blowhard approach to foreign policy, among other things. If, on the other hand, you are a Republican (especially a Reagan Republican), corporate oil tycoon, Neo-Con, or eschatalogical fanatic, my guess is that your stake in this election is to continue to hold on to the fat of the land which you have hoarded for the last eight years or more, “stay the course” with the Bush policies to really give them the time they deserve to flower (is 100 years long enough?), further entrench religion with politics (after all, G.O.P. stands for God’s Official Party), and perhaps delay the much needed paradigm shift from fossil fuels to renewable energies. One only needed to hear the sycophantic mantra, “Drill Baby Drill!” from the Republican audience during their convention to sink home the truly lack of progressiveness needed in today’s ruling party.

Whatever the case, whatever one’s political persuasions might be, whoever gets the job will be inheriting one hell of a mess. America is in what is arguably one of its most pivotal moments. We are at the tipping point. Not only has a bellicose and reckless Republican administration taken us down a spiral of economic and political decline, but so has the newly elected Democratic majority-led House and Senate, who are complicit by not fulfilling the mandate of the voting public.

An interesting aspect of this election is to see how the next president would potentially continue the Bush administration’s precedent of unbridled Executive power in a post-Bush White House. Is it conceivable that the next president would relenquish such power? Would Barack, bolstered by a Democratic House and Senate be any less of a tyranny than what we have seen in the last eight years?

Now that the conventions are over, the final campaigns are in full swing, and so are the attack ads and the political cheapshots have begun with relentless predictability. If I were forced to vote today, I would put in a vote of “No Confidence” in our system. Neither of the parties, from what I have observed, seem to have any real progressive solutions for our society and the world. In today’s arena of “political kabuki,” as Noam Chomsky puts it, how refreshing it would have been to see the two major candidates shock the world (and the delegates) by coming together to run on a bi-partisan ticket. Both McCain and Obama already have the support of their respective parties, both are the media darlings of the election, and they both have about an equal proportion of followers. What if they worked toward uniting our country instead of dividing us? Now that would have been progressive.

“If there’s one thing I can guarantee, it’s: Don’t try and have fun in Denver, Colorado. Because if you do, the fuckwits in the Denver Police Department will gas your ass straight into the ground…” –William S. Burroughs

Denver was finally given the chance to show its stuff as a major city capable of hosting a world event. Hopefully those tired old rumors of Denver being a “cow town” are finally displaced. During this politically heightened week in Denver, history was made as the first bi-racial African American was nominated for president by the Democratic party. The mood was boisterous and celebratory in light of this historical moment and it was indeed a shining moment for the Mile High City as we showed the world that we can get political (and that it doesn’t snow 11 months out of the year).

Denver has a history of large crowds clashing with the police and getting gassed. Most of these events have been sports-team-victory-related, such as the 1996 Stanley Cup victory by the inaugural Colorado Avalanche, or the back-to-back Super Bowl victories in ’97 and ’98 by the Denver Broncos. During those events, over a quarter of a million people flooded the streets of downtown Denver wreaking havok in their revelry, and sadly forcing those pussycats in the Denver Police Dept. to break out the ol’ tear gas. The Democratic National Convention was no sporting event however, and despite the overwhelming surge of people “dancin’ in the streets,” the revelry remained gregarious.
What a week it’s been trying to live amongst all of these cops and crazies and tree-hugging hippie types. Much to the relief and surprise of the planners of this event, the angry and befuddled masses kept the discourse civil and left the cops with nothing to do; well, there was a bizarre donut shortage during the week, but I say: “A happy cop is good for everyone,” and for the most part, the Denver police were a bunch of sweethearts (there was that little incident on Monday, the 25th when police gassed a group of protesters that strayed from their designated zone, but more on that later).
Now that the dust has settled, I have had some time to ponder a concept that came up during the DNC that I want to address. As I reported before, the protest movement during the DNC was well under the anticipated numbers and for the most part lacked substance. The groups were mostly fringe and precipitous and thankfully non-violent. But was this due to mere sloth, or was it due to the overall aura of police intimidation?
The police presence in Denver was mighty to behold. It seemed that there was a group of heavily armed cops on every street corner. As I walked through Civic Park in the dapple of late summer sunshine, I noticed that there were typically more cops than protesters. Some civil rights activists complained that the need for so many police personnel was unjustified and oppressive and had deterred many individuals from coming out to speak their mind.
I was able to obtain a training manual used by the police that explains certain “illegal” protest methods. Such methods include handcuffing two or more protester’s wrists together inside of a metal tube, erecting tall tripod-like structures for a protester to perch atop of, and other radical methods of demonstrating. While I’m sure that these methods amount to a headache for law enforcement, how have they become illegal?
The U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights provides its citizens the right to free speech and assembly. It does not specify which acts of protesting are legal or illegal. The point of protesting is to affect change through civil disobedience usually against a tyranny. Protesting is usually the result of a person or group feeling marginalized by a more dominant group who tends to have a more influential forum. The protesters set out to thrust their beliefs into the public eye through means that are attention-grabbing, unorthodox, and sometimes shocking. How can the oppressed gain exposure if their methods are reduced to de-sensitized conventionality? What ever happened to the ’60’s? Remember the Buddhists who set themselves on fire? Talk about radical. Some of the methods used by innovative activists during the Vietnam War would, today, be rendered as terrorism.
Ever since September 11, 2001, Americans have had a greater awareness for the need for heightened security. This holds true especially for Barack Obama, who is certainly a marked man. I was relieved to see that he was well protected during this event. The simple fact that I heard the “A” word already being discussed (assassination), shows me that there are still too many backwards-thinking bigots around to safely let our guard down. But where do we draw the line? How much of our civil liberties, including the right to adequately protest, are we willing to give up for this so-called security?
Demonstrators in Denver certainly got a dose of the new climate of fear and security. Larger groups were herded along designated parade routes and “free-speech” zones. When they deviated from the route, or had planned unscheduled marches, they were met with swift and brutal police force, including an ostensibly excessive use of tear gas.. A close associate of mine put it to me like this: “Their right to protest wasn’t taken away, only their mobility.” This brought up a very disturbing idea. If dissent is largely controlled, how effective can it really be at affecting change? In this post 9/11 world, has conventional protesting become obsolete? Only time will tell…