Thursday, May 07, 2009

Last night I found a Virgin Mary that looked just like a potato chip!

I'm scanning the radio dial in my car yesterday and I come across this evangelical station that broadcasts out of tiny Shiremanstown, PA, one of the many colorless hamlets ringing Harrisburg, which is, of course, my state capital. I have no firsthand knowledge about life in Shiremanstown, but based on its programming and the nature of the ads I heard in the 30 minutes I listened, I get the feeling it might well be the embodiment of the mentality Obama had in mind when he made that impolitic comment about small-town Americans who cling to "guns and religion."

At least twice during that half-hour I heard a prerecorded bit that consisted of a doleful recounting of the p
ickle we're in as a nation, then a long description of God's role in everyday life, then this dramatically delivered line, which one assumes is meant to be potent and memorable:

"Because faith...is America's only hope."

I could go on about this for hours, but you're in luck this morning, as I have time for the short(er) version only.

You can't tell me that people who really feel that way (or who fall under the spell of evangelists who spread that mantra) are as diligent or as pragmatic about finding answers to life's riddles as the take-charge types who think it's all up to us in the here and now. This is why I was so surprised and heartened some months back when a local rabbi* (of all people) came to
the defense of then-ubiquitous Chesley Sullenberger after Sully admitted in interviews that he hadn't taken time out for prayer while he was figuring out where to land his aircraft. "There's a time for prayer and there's a time for action," the rabbi wrote, more or less, in my local paper. "We can thank God that Capt. Sullenberger didn't waste valuable time praying! Otherwise the people on that flight might all be dead."

The other problem with putting your total faith in faith is that it tends to take options off the table. I've mentioned this before, but every time I see that annoyingly sanctimonious ad from Catholic Charities that entreaties, "Won't you please send $10 to feed little Ngumi and her family for a week?", I want to scream at my set, "How 'bout if I send fifty bucks to buy little Ngumi's mom some condoms, or at least a month's supply of morning-after pills?" But see, that's not one of the choices here; though it might be a good first step towards fixing things in the real world, it would screw little Ngumi's parents for all eternity in the lamb-of-God way of looking at things. So we have to let little Ngumi's mom keep churning out babies, fertile season after fertile season, and put our faith in hope as we deal with the secular mess that results.

Broadening the lens, all of this, once again, is what I meant by the subtitle of my book. The foregoing doesn't just apply to religions. It applies to self-help programs that function as religions, or cults, or addictions. If you're dependent on Tony Robbins' next seminar or Laura Schlessinger's next book or Rhonda Byrne's next DVD or Oprah's next show to lead you to the promised land of human fulfillment, then to some degree you have ceded control over your own life to someone else. The same is true of 12-step programs, wherein people are taught to recognize the existence and ultimate authority of that familiar "higher power." So whether we're talking about Dr. Charles Stanley or Dr. Phil McGraw (or Rev. Joel Osteen, who tries to be both), when you abdicate responsibility, and especially when you convince yourself that this faith is "your only hope," you have effectively given up.

But to end by returning to where we started: How sad it is to me that so many millions of us are so desperate to find something, some answer beyond our own human resources, that we end up worshiping totems that tumble out of a box of chips or appear on the griddle of some greasy spoon.

* whose name I wish I could remember because he deserves major props.

29 comments:

Dimension Skipper said...

Sorta kinda in a similar vein...

Last night I stumbled back across Roger Ebert's blog and found he'd been pondering some of the imponderables of life, God, and the cosmos.

They're rather lengthy, but I particularly liked these two entries:


April 17 -- How I believe in GodQUOTECatholicism made me a humanist before I knew the word. When people rail against "secular humanism," I want to ask them if humanism itself would be okay with them. Over the high school years, my belief in the likelihood of a God continued to lessen. I kept this to myself. I never discussed it with my parents....

Did I start calling myself an agnostic or an atheist? No, and I still don't. I avoid that because I don't want to provide a category for people to apply to me. I would not want my convictions reduced to a word.

. . . .

At the "quantum level," and I don't know what that means and cannot visualize it, everything that there is may be actually or theoretically linked. All is one. Sun, moon, stars, rain, you, me, everything. All one. If this is so, then Buddhism must have been a quantum theory all along. No, I am not a Buddhist. I am not a believer, not an atheist, not an agnostic. I am still awake at night, asking how? I am more content with the question than I would be with an answer.


May 2 -- Go gentle into that good nightQUOTEI was told that I was an atheist. Or an agnostic. Or a deist. I refused all labels. It is too easy for others to pin one on me, and believe they understand me. I am still working on understanding myself.

Elizabeth said...

This is beside your point, Steve, but I'd be amiss if I didn't note that the condoms you'd like to buy would be for little Ngumi's father, not mother.

"So we have to let little Ngumi's mom keep churning out babies, fertile season after fertile season, and put our faith in hope as we deal with the secular mess that results."

Let's not forget that Ngumi's mom does not churn out those babies all by herself, in her free time. There is a man (or several) involved who does not care much about Ngumi or her mom or the future offspring, only about his sexual needs. And Ngumi's mom likely has nothing to say in the matter.

So yes, condoms (sorry, Pope) for the guys; education and support for the women. (Education for all, why not, but women need it and benefit from it the most, as examples around the world show.)

Sarsabu said...

Not many calories in $50 (€37.59) worth of condoms and a month's supply of morning after pills!

Deffo the whole point is to take responsibility for one's own actions. Great to read the basics again.

Elizabeth said...

BTW, check today's Quote of the Day on SHAMblog:

"Reason is a very light rider, and easily shook off."
Jonathan Swift

Anonymous said...

"...that annoyingly sanctimonious ad from Catholic Charities that entreaties, "Won't you please send $10 to feed little Ngumi and her family for a week?", I want to scream at my set, "How 'bout if I send fifty bucks to buy little Ngumi's mom some condoms, or at least a month's supply of morning-after pills?"

What strikes me about your response is why you don't scream at your set: "how 'bout I send $50to Ngumi's father to buy some condoms!"

But see, that's apparently not one of the choices here.

I know there's a lot more to consider from your post but I can't figure out why this situation needs to be handled as you describe: by the woman.

And stop screaming at a Catholic Charity about their shortsightedness for not handing out condoms. You'll live longer.

Perhaps you can address your suggestion and send your money to the Planned Parentood organizations working overseas. http://www.ippf.org/en/Help/

Paul said...

In my arguments with fundamentalist Christians (and many Catholics too, actually), faith is almost always brought up as a way to ignore scientific evidence or philosophical argument they are otherwise unable to counter.

Granted, the classic definition of faith is "belief in absence of proof", although as problematic as that is, the recent use of faith seems to be "belief in the presence of evidence to the contrary" or the wishful thinking you described.

Perhaps it is ultimately a coping mechanism. I notice that devoutly religious people turn to prayer and faith in times of trouble and for them, the political direction the country is headed (i.e. without them) would qualify.

Anonymous said...

What an excellent post Steve, I really enjoyed it.

On another note - I saw an interesting story on our news this morning where Oprah gave out vouchers for a free grilled chicken meal at KFC and they were mobbed. Did you guys hear about it?

Londoner

RevRon's Rants said...

"I can't figure out why this situation needs to be handled as you describe: by the woman."

Ummm... maybe because *she* is the one who keeps getting pregnant? While the condoms are (of course) worn by the men, it would be a whole lot easier to give momma the tools to prevent subsequent impregnations than to try and so equip each and every one of the males who follow their johnsons into her life (and back out again).

Faith - May well be a coping mechanism, but it need not be in opposition to logic. My own perspective is that faith is the acceptance of something *more* than - rather than something at odds with - that which I can comprehend and explain. If I have to discard common sense in order to believe, I would be discarding one of the most precious gifts we humans have been given, and we have plenty of proof that nature (or God) abhors waste.

Rational Thinking said...

The wording "Because faith is America's only hope" strikes me as odd. Shouldn't he have said "God is America's only hope"? Or does he mean that you have to have faith because if you don't then the deity won't help? Perhaps it's just me being picky.

Anyway, how's about hard work, serious thinking, detailed evaluation of the difficulties and a plan, heck more than one plan - are all these things meaningless beside faith?

Also - if you have faith, why would you need guns? I mean, what kind of faith is that? OK, Friday's rant over :-)

Steve Salerno said...

Also - if you have faith, why would you need guns?That's exactly what I thought, RT! Except I didn't think it in time. ;)

I guess it's what you'd call hedging your bets.

Steve Salerno said...

Eliz et al: As to the matter of the condoms... Touchy, aren't we? I really intended no implication that "it's the woman's responsibility to prevent herself from getting knocked up." Never even entered my mind. When I said we'd buy them "for Ngumi's mom," I really meant it in the more inclusive sense, i.e., "for Ngumi's mom and whoever she's going to be with." I was speaking (or writing) casually and off-the-cuff, and did not mean to exclude the man and/or his role in all this. (The other extreme is, say, when a young married woman who very much wants a baby finds out she's going to have one and announces to the world, "We're pregnant!" Now that's a case where she's including the man in an "activity" where he does not, technically, belong, but everyone understands what she means. FYI, I personally hate when women say that; something inside me just grits its teeth.)

OTOH, having now read Ron's comment, I find a lot to agree with. I'm reminded of the "liberated" women in post-AIDS-era Manhattan (and other cosmopolitan locales) who began keeping an assortment of condoms on the nightstand, the message to guys being, "If you want to be with me, you wear one of these." I don't think it's sexist to uphold that ethic, is it?

RevRon's Rants said...

"Also - if you have faith, why would you need guns?"

If one's "faith" tells them that there are no predators in the world from which they need protect themselves, I would suggest that their "faith" is really a foolhardy illusion. Following the same "logic," a person of "faith" would never need medical care of any kind, since they would be "protected" from disease. Wouldn't need a job, either, since God (or whatever was the basis for their faith) would provide for all their needs.

Old Muslim parable: Trust in Allah, but tie up the camels.

RevRon's Rants said...

DimSkip - Your commentary and Ebert's quote hit close to home for me, and reminded me of a statement made by yet another reasonably intelligent individual, whom I suspect had some inkling as to the nature of quantum theory:

"Buddhism has the characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic religion for the future: it transcends a personal God, avoids dogmas and theology; it covers both the natural & spiritual, and it is based on a religious sense aspiring from the experience of all things as a meaningful unity" - Albert Einstein

Anonymous said...

"...it would be a whole lot easier to give momma the tools to prevent subsequent impregnations than to try and so equip each and every one of the males who follow their johnsons into her life (and back out again)."

Ron, I'm not trying to be difficult - but I am curious.

Why is it "easier" to give momma the tools? It's definitely easier on her to NOT get pregnant; I get that. But as Elizabeth points out, she can't get there alone. Is it easier because she risks more (an unintended pregnancy?)

Why do we assume the woman in question is promiscuous? ("each and everyone of the males...")

Why do we assume men can't figure out the many possible consequences of intercourse without protection? ("..follow their johnsons..")

Why do we assume the man is not committed to the woman? ("..and back out again..") It's certainly possible that a committed relationship between two people - even those who are helped by charities and live in dire circumstances - results in a pregnancy.

Are men simply hopeless bundles of hormones? Really? Is that the reason it's "easier" to deal with the woman? Because she'll actually listen and think beyond the next night of passion? I can't believe that. I don't believe it.

And Steve: "I don't think it's sexist to uphold that ethic, is it?"

Yes, it is. Sexist and Western and middle to upper middle class. Why a man - presumably one who meets the criteria set out by the "liberated" women you describe - doesn't have the wherewithal to tuck a condom into his wallet is beyond me.

Steve Salerno said...

So it is sexist for me to applaud the women who keep condoms on their nightstands? I don't get it. (Just as I don't get the criticism I took in a previous post for citing Jamie Fox's own caustic depictions of a woman who happened to be black.) Can we really be saying that if a woman undertakes a certain behavior that suggests she's taking full responsibility for her own reproductive health, and a man then nods and applauds that decision--he's being sexist?

Understand, I'm not saying that men shouldn't walk around with condoms in their wallets. (Btw, do Ugandan tribesmen carry wallets?) Still, it is the woman who bears the babies, and must then raise them if the man moves on--we certainly hear this all the time in family court, which is heavily biased towards mothers--and so it is the woman, ultimately, who has the final word over what enters her body, both in terms of (a) the man and (b) his sperm. Why is it sexist to say that?

Elizabeth said...

"Yes, it is. Sexist and Western and middle to upper middle class. Why a man - presumably one who meets the criteria set out by the "liberated" women you describe - doesn't have the wherewithal to tuck a condom into his wallet is beyond me."

In addition to Anon's point, I'd note that what works for a woman in New York and her partner(s), may not (will not) work in, say, Congo or Zimbabwe.

A New York sophisticate can expect and demand certain behaviors from her sexual partner(s), while I highly doubt women in Congo and vicinity have similar powers. Or any say in the sex matters at all.

Elizabeth said...

"and so it is the woman, ultimately, who has the final word over what enters her body"

Again, not necessarily in Congo and vicinity.

RevRon's Rants said...

"Why is it "easier" to give momma the tools?"

That's a simple one... When the music stops, it will be the woman who is pregnant, regardless of whether the man stays around or not. It only makes sense for the woman to assume ultimate responsibility for taking action to prevent that pregnancy (if she chooses), regardless of whether the man acts responsibly or not.

This isn't about the failings or weaknesses of either gender; merely a common-sense approach to the potential repercussions of a situation. We each must assume personal responsibility for our own well-being, rather than passively depend upon another to do so. For that reason, if we are to provide the tools to either, we should provide them to the woman. If the man arrives with those same tools, all the better. But it would be illogical - and risky - to assume that he would do so.

RevRon's Rants said...

"Why a man - presumably one who meets the criteria set out by the "liberated" women you describe - doesn't have the wherewithal to tuck a condom into his wallet is beyond me."

By the same token, why a woman - especially one who considers herself to be liberated - doesn't have the good sense to keep her own condoms at hand, thus accepting responsibility for what happens to her own body is beyond me.

Anonymous said...

"Can we really be saying that if a woman undertakes a certain behavior that suggests she's taking full responsibility for her own reproductive health, and a man then nods and applauds that decision--he's being sexist?"

Sexism: the economic and social domination of members of one sex by the other. (Webster's New World Dictionary.)

Your pre-seduction scene sounds charming, but unfortunately, the truth is not that men nod and applaud a woman for being "prepared," and thank her for taking full reponsibility for her reproductive health. In fact, they expect it and consequently shirk responsibility for their own reproductive health at the same time.

One could even call it "socially dominating" the opposite sex, to coin a phrase.

Oh - your comment about wallets and their availability to tribesmen of one kind or another is exactly why I labeled your comment Western as well as sexist.

Steve Salerno said...

First of all, if we're going to introduce the specter of forced sex (otherwise known as rape) into the equation, then all bets are off. So the question of "who uses the birth control?" becomes irrelevant, because not too many rapists (tribal or otherwise) worry about that. I fear we are edging closer and closer to Catherine MacKinnon's famous assertion that "all intercourse is rape." Ok then. Where do we go now?

Secondly, one grows weary of having people hop all over the nuance of every single thing said on this blog, looking for the tiniest specs of un-PC thought, so they can yell "Gotcha!" The first definition for civilization is "an advanced state of human society, in which a high level of culture, science, industry, and government has been reached." Now I suppose we could parse even those words--"who's to say what represents a high level of culture, huh, huh?"--but the fact remains that you look at most of these Third World cultures that are in such dire need of our (Western) help, and you see life expectancies that are maybe two-thirds our own (less in some cases); infant-mortality/morbidity rates that are terrifying (which makes the food shortages even scarier: what would it be like if all the babies lived?); tribal disputes that, in 2009, are settled with machetes or curare-soaked darts; no meaningful form of workable government; lovely practices like clitoral excision and other types of female genital mutilation; wild forms of paganism and anti-scientific beliefs; and we won't even get into assessing the "advancement" of their levels of industry. If it makes me insufferably "Western" to note the differences between my society and theirs--and to conclude that mine is more civilized--so be it.

Anonymous said...

Who introduced forced sex??

Steve Salerno said...

Btw, would people have felt better if I simply said "send fifty bucks to put Ngumi's mom on The Pill"? It's not going to protect her against STDs (and of course AIDS in Africa is a far more severe threat than it is in the U.S., among heteros), but if that would help bridge the gap that has developed here in the comments section, I'd gladly commit to it.

RevRon's Rants said...

"I highly doubt women in Congo and vicinity have similar powers. Or any say in the sex matters at all."

I think we're comparing apples & oranges here, Eliz. Such a situation isn't a "relationship." It's a violent crime, and the dictates of appropriate behavior are off the table. Perhaps rather than a drawer full of condoms, the woman should have a sharp knife within reach... which would be a death warrant for her in such brutally sexist societies, where the closest thing to "woman's rights" comes down to a bellowed order such as, "Woman! Right now!"

RevRon's Rants said...

"if that would help bridge the gap that has developed here in the comments section, I'd gladly commit to it."

Steve, you can "offensiveness-proof" the blog all you want. If someone is inclined toward being offended, they'll find something. Like the old saying that if you idiot-proof a system, someone will invent better idiots (And to head off the umbrage brigade, this was merely a quote, offered as analogous to the concept I was describing. I was not inferring that anyone was an idiot... )

Steve Salerno said...

See Eliz's comments of 2:37 and 2:38.

Elizabeth said...

How 'bout we send those 50 bucks etc. for contraceptives and sex education for both men and women? Would that be acceptable?

Jobu said...

Well, let's take a group of 50 of each gender...if 49 of the 50 women practice birth control, we have an expectation of one baby. If 49 of the 50 men practice it, the other one can father 50 babies.

Steve Salerno said...

Good point, Jobu.

(Btw--can you hit the curve?)