Why I've had it with religious tolerance.
Originally published in Arthur, April 2006
by Douglas Rushkoff
Okay, so let's get into this God game.
I think it's time to get serious about the role God plays in human affairs, and evaluate whether it's appropriate to let everyone in on the bad news: God doesn't exist, never did, and the closest thing we'll ever see to God will emerge from our own collective efforts at making meaning.
Maybe I'm just getting old, but I no longer see the real value in being tolerant of other people's beliefs. Sure, when beliefs are relegated to the realm of pure entertainment, they pose no real danger. So, a kid believes U2 is really a supergroup on par with The Beatles or The Who. That's *his* problem, and it doesn't really do a lot of harm to anyone except those of us who still stop by MTV occasionally to see what might be playing.
When religions are practiced, as they are by a majority of those in developed nations, today, as a kind of nostalgic little ritual - a community event or an excuse to get together and not work - it doesn't really screw anything up too badly. But when they radically alter our ability to contend with reality, cope with difference, or implement the most basic ethical provisions, they must be stopped.
Like any other public health crisis, the belief in religion must now be treated as a sickness. It is an epidemic, paralyzing our nation's ability to behave in a rational way, and - given our weapons capabilities - posing an increasingly grave threat to the rest of the world.
Just look at the numbers. A FoxNews poll (no doubt inflating these figures) claims that 92% of Americans say they believe in God, 85% believe in heaven, and 71% believe in the Devil. (That's right - the guy with horns and a tail who presides over hell. The DeNiro character in Angel Heart, Pacino in Devils'Advocate and the one who tricks people into signing contracts on Twilight Zone.) Given FoxNews accuracy, we can cut these numbers in half, yet are still confronted with a deeply frightening prospect: half the people amongst who we walk and work every day believe some really fucked up shit. They've taken the metaphors of the Bible or Dante's Inferno and gone ahead and decided that these images and allegories are *real*.
Add to that the more reliable polls finding that 35% of Americans say they are "born again" - a particularly modern phenomenon that came only after the charlatan rabble-rousers during the Great Depression - and you get a picture of a nation hoodwinked into a passive, childlike, yet dogmatic relationship to the myths that were originally written to sustain them, spur their motivation to social justice, and encourage continuing evolution.
As I've always understood them, and as I try to convey them in my comic book, the stories in the Bible are less significant because they happened at some moment in history than because their underlying dynamics seem to be happening in all moments. We are all Cain, struggling with our feelings about a sibling who seems to be more blessed than we are. We are always escaping the enslaved mentality of Egypt and the idolatry we practiced there. We are all Mordechai, bristling against the pressure to bow in subservience to our bosses.
But true believers don't have this freedom. Whether it's because they need the Bible to prove a real estate claim in the Middle East, because they don't know how to relate something that didn't really happen, or because they require the threat of an angry super-being who sees all in order behave like good children, true believers - what we now call fundamentalists - are not in a position to appreciate the truth and beauty of the Holy Scriptures. No, the multi-dimensional document we call the Bible is not available to them because, for them, all those stories have to be accepted as historical truth.
Forget the fact that this is pretty much impossible to do. The Bible contradicts itself all over the place. There are even two different creation stories! (One in which Eve is created at the same time as Adam, and another where she is grown from his rib. And they're less than a page apart.) Forget that the myths of the Bible had already been understood as mythology by the pre-Biblical cultures from which many of them came. And forget that the Bible comments on its own stories, as stories, directly! On numerous occasions, the narration asks its hearers whether they get the joke.
That's because, for the Torah's first hearers (Torah is the first five books of the Bible), all those jokes really were jokes. They understood that Jacob's sons weren't really the fathers of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, but parodies - racist parodies, at that - of the qualities that had come to be associated with each of these existing groups. They understood that the "plagues" against Egypt were literary desecrations of the Egyptian gods. (Blood desecrates the Nile, which was a god. Locusts desecrate the corn, a god, and so on.)
That the Bible could be understood metaphorically helped people relate to its "God" metaphorically, as well. It's not that God is some character who really exists, but a way of relating to the events in the world as they unfold. No one can grasp this, however, if they're stuck believing.
So I think it's time those of us who have transcended this primitive approach to collective storytelling to speak up. This liberation from belief systems is precisely what the Bible is about. A people liberate from the death of a creationist model of reality and go out into the desert to write their own laws.
It's analogous to the story of America, in fact, where a bunch of people leave religious oppression in order to write a Constitution as an evolutionary document - something that, instead of being believed in forever, is understood to be an ongoing process. A participatory event.
Right now, America's true believers are locking down its laws along with its Bible. They are fighting the science of evolution because it accepts that things change over time - and such change is incompatible with static, everlasting truths. They are doing to today's progressives the very same thing that the Bible's Egyptians were doing to the Israelites. And they're doing it in the name of a God who they believe they'll meet when they die. This is the very mindset and behavior the Bible was written to stop.
Perhaps the best way to kill their God, in fact, is to take charge of the Bible. It is - in my own opinion as a media theorist - the Greatest Story Ever Told, and deserving of our continued support and analysis. For my part, I'm writing Testament, which I hope will bring these stories - told both in their Biblical context and as a near-future sci-fi fable - to people who might never have stumbled across them before.
For others - especially our friends involved in the occult arts - I'd hope they consider using some Bible imagery and characters in their work and rituals. They're just as potent as anything in the Mahabharata, and far more resonant with the Western popular culture in which most of us actually grew up. For those of you looking for an authentic tradition in which to base your art, music, or fiction, consider the themes of revolution, universal justice and mind expansion as they're depicted in allegories from Eden to Babel and characters from Joseph to Jesus.
By appropriating these characters and metaphors as our own, we instill them with the power they require to release the stranglehold that true believers have over the myths built to help us face the truth, instead. Their success in making the Bible seem like a sanctimonious tome is just another testament to the deleterious effect of surrendering one of the best books ever written about sacred magick to people whose lives depend on ignoring the possibility of escape from the nightmare of eternal bondage to a vengeful deity.
The more we can make its mythology relevant to our present, the more easily we'll bring those who believe in it out of the past.
Why I've had it with religious tolerance.