It is no small matter to advance the courage of one’s convictions, especially if your values and actions fail to identify with majority culture or, in this Age of the Meme, those who manage the discourse. Whose story gets told is not an equal opportunity promise. The fiction of unity often holds us together when the realities of difference are less empowering. But perils come with every form of human collectivity, not even a party of one is exempt. Religion exacerbates these issues as much as it provides for definitions of “us” and what it means to be “them.” To embrace diversity requires the binary, whatever problems necessarily ensue.
The etymology of the word “religion” —a word not used until about the 4th century—is “holding together” or, to put this in more modern terms, “solidarity.” The clear sense is the maintenance of group identity. What does it mean to be one of us? Of course, to answer such a question necessarily implies at least a dash of self-superiority and patronizing of dissent. Who, after all, believes their beliefs to be only just as good as another’s? The worst that too-much-conviction brings comes close on these heels. What happens if another’s “love your neighbor as yourself” strikes you as not such good advice, in fact, an imposition, and you mean to convey that opinion?
A tribe’s commitment to identity language and symbols always becomes a play for power, however contrary to human decency. If I merely mention Nietzsche or Marx here that will suffice to ruffle enough feathers to make my point. We are all invaded by the body snatchers, one way or another, because being different, much less the “other,” has real consequences. How do we express our freedom without that costing others’ theirs? When is one person’s matter of conscience another person’s oppression? How can we mitigate the conflict that invariably appears when human beings have genuinely diverse opinions? The only thing more dangerous than ignorance is certainty and what is a better indication of oppression than the asservation of only one truth? We can put this another way: how many interpretations of religion eschew certainty as willingly as they embrace tolerance? Tolerance is not merely about accepting another’s differences; it is about the effort to prevent one’s own views from becoming another person’s oppression or exploitation. That is fine line territory and rarely a place where we find comfort and inclusion. So how do we learn to live with the intimidation that follows from dissenting opinions or being someone else’s other?
There’s been little notice taken of the Satanic Temple’s efforts to place their thorn strategically into the American discourse but they have done us all a favor. We are compelled to take them seriously. (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/11/us/a-mischievious-thorn-in-the-side-of-conservative-christianity.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&version=Moth-Visible&module=inside-nyt-region®ion=inside-nyt-region&WT.nav=inside-nyt-region). It’s remarkable how little this group’s efforts have been taken seriously in mainstream media without the usual dismissive or condescending assumptions. Americans are not particularly adept at seriousness, which may explain why Stewart, Colbert, and now Oliver appear more like the news than the news. If it’s not entertaining or reduced to Twitter© worthy we are a short attention span society. When the going requires seriousness, we preserve tolerance by embracing simplicity, nowadays reduced to meme, slogan, or whatever picture can be sold with commercials.
Satanic Temple is obviously working the distinctive angle of the American First Amendment with a particular eye on the disingenuous “religious freedom” meme that fundamentalist Christians are currently working in public. (http://thesatanictemple.com/about-us) Let’s assume that certain evangelical Christian agendas offend and embarrass other Christians who don’t share these political advocacies or impositions. But the Satanic Temple’s more-than-satire (think: Flying Spaghetti Monster) is incisively aimed: their contrariety means to be a thorn in any religious agenda that uses the First Amendment to advance the right to discriminate.
We will only see more “religious freedom” laws from elected officials (re: Republicans) supporting those who can’t find it in their hearts to issue marriage licenses or bake cakes. “Satanic Temple” is language that goes to the heart of Christian fear of the Devil and obviously means to insult the hypocrisy of evangelical agendas. Wilfred Cantwell Smith who served as Director of Harvard’s Center for the Study of World Religions when I was a graduate student made it a point to say that he found the imposition of Christian views from his own Christian standpoint “uncharitable” and so unloving— a violation of his religious principles. This is hardly an endorsement of secular method in studying religion but as a religious stance Smith’s acknowledged tolerance is as much a wariness of the power of a dominant religion over others. Professor Smith could never quite step into a secularist’s creed in which insult and intolerance is as much an instrument of serious enquiry as respect and inclusion. The issue isn’t whether you will insult someone with a question or comment. Nor can we use a standard of efficacy: does anyone really believe that your interlocutor will change his mind because you have the better argument? The only reason left to risk insult is because the method of open inquiry promises more rather than less to consider. Not everyone wants more.
If you are not willing to risk insult to another’s conviction, then you may have already given up learning. Learning means asking any question and holding every viewpoint accountable to reason. Learning involves changing your mind, even when that might involve questioning your most hard won convictions and toppling yourself. If there is but an incremental change in opinions, we might consider that a worthy end. More compelling is how learning demands that your viewpoint is no exception beyond refutation and that you pursue self-subversion as a principle of honest investigation. Of course, none of this sounds odd in a college classroom or to any methodology involving secular learning. Science warms to revision in ways religion does not. We are left to create a meaningful juxtaposition to how many religions do their business.
Religion in America is the place were someone’s incontrovertible beliefs are respected enough to be voiced freely. (Yesterday, on the day of South Carolina’s removal of the Confederate battle flag from State grounds and into a museum I witnessed at least three such flags within ten miles of my home in western New York. Free speech? Willful insult? If there is a difference here it is without distinction.) When does an insult or a symbol of hate becomeoppressive? When it is sanctioned—that is, made sacred—as it was by the State of South Carolina for these many years or when advocacy becomes the means of repression. We can afford to err uncomfortably on the side of freedom when efforts to enforce conformity or oppress the other are effectively marginalized. This is why majorities need protect diversity and the experiences of minorities. Rural white America knows it is growing old, dying, and becoming the minority. (Last week Latinos became the ethnic majority of Americans in California.) In America you are free to be that jackass with the Confederate battle flag: perhaps better we know that you are so that we can marginalize such views. How do we protect their minority views? Do we? I think we will need the Satanic Temple’s principles.
To cite the New York Times piece above, “Although he, like Mr. Jarry, is an ‘atheistic Satanist,’ meaning that he no more believes in a literal Satan than he does in a literal God, he finds special meaning in Satanism, which represents to him the solidarity of outsiders, those judged and excluded by the mainstream.” Add the Satanic Temple’s seven fundamental tenets (“’It could be eight tomorrow, it could be six,’ Mr. Jarry said.”) and what you see is the ordinary agenda of secular learning in full evidence. (http://thesatanictemple.com/about-us/tenets)
It’s not without irony and seriousness that these “Satanists” likely mean to juxtapose religious agendas with the quotidian pursuit of learning that governs higher education. Their tenets actually serve to protect those who would oppose them. Without irony I can declare none of these tenets violate my own religion, which apparently has more in common with the Satanic Temple than I might have first imagined. The lesson shouldn’t be lost on us: beware tenets that abide change and address differences, no matter how sure you are that you too need some of your own.