Religion-Lite as a gateway religion to fundamentalism

December 12, 2006 | By | 2 Replies More

I just can’t help periodically visiting the site of Focus on the Family, at least once in a while.  They address many good topics over there—I often disagree with their conclusions, though not always (I almost always disagree with their attempted intrusions into government).  They offer some solid good advice on parenting, marriage and career, some of it without much religion.  Sometimes it reads like almost entirely like pop psychology.  

For instance, in the current article on Mary Cheney, there is no condemnation, no fire and brim stone, only concern.  Actually, lots of concern.  Most of it about the absence of a father-figure in a child’s life.  This is a legitimate concern, though it seems a bit hollow coming from an organization which is quintessentially homophobic.  But they keep their deeper concerns about gays and inerrant bible passages in check in this particular article.  Certainly, there is no discussion about hell. 

Another current FOTF article features “Worldviews.”    The ostensible concern is that “The Lion King” does not teach biblical Christianity, “despite a handful of good moral lessons.  Again, no rampant condemnation.  Instead, the article warns that

the notion of the “circle of life,” that history is circular and the present is heavily influenced by the spirits of one’s ancestors, is closer to Eastern pantheism or native spiritualism than the linear view of history presented in the Bible.

On a lark, I read a FOTF article on “Marijuana — inhaled intellectual impairment.”  The gist of the article is that marijuana is a “gateway” drug.  A relatively mild starter drug that nevertheless sends one shooting down the slippery slope toward hard drugs that ruin lives.  This point is up for debate, despite the self-assured claims of Focus on the Family.

I noticed something interesting about the argument structure of this FOTF marijuana article.  It occurred to me that some mild forms of feel-good easy-going religion (I’ll call it “liberal” Christianity here) might serve as a gateway religion to hard core mind-destroying fundamentalist religions.  Sam Harris has often made the argument that moderate religions are unwittingly paving the way for the radical fringe, needlessly and dangerously working to make all “religion” respectable because it is “religion.”

To make my argument, I will insert some religion terms into the FOTF drug argument:

Parents who experimented with liberal Christianity during the 1960s may not be terribly concerned about this religion. But the way kids are worshipping today bears little resemblance to the way liberal Christian children were worshipping three decades ago.

In preteens and young adolescents, heavy use of Christianity can also impair growth and development.

Most kids who follow Liberal Christianity experience a sense of euphoria, relaxation, and calm. Some feel it enhances perception. The reality is that it impairs intellectual function, specifically concentration, memory, judgment, and motor skills. Short-term fallout can include injuries and death from motor-vehicle accidents or other trauma as well as sexual misadventures resulting from loss of inhibition and rational thinking.

Long-term liberal Christian worshippers are known for an “amotivational” syndrome in which goals and self-discipline and the activities that require them (especially school performance) literally go up in holy smoke. During the teen years a child should be learning how to think and act more maturely, but frequent prayer use can halt that process. Worse, it introduces kids to the harrowing world of fundamentalism and the fear-mongering criminals who push it.

Now I don’t generally consider liberal versions of Christianity to be “gateway” religions any more than I consider marijuana to be a gateway drug.  In my experience, users of the “lite” types of religions/drugs don’t inevitably slide down the slippery slope.  Then again . . . sometimes Believers/users do advance to fundamentalism/heroin.  I don’t have the statistics on the occurrence rate.  I’d like to know.  In the meantime, I’d like to sketch out some of the characteristics of what I’m going to call Stage I versus Stage III believers, in an utterly unscientific analysis.

Stage I.  God is poetic notion, often a force lacking a personality.  If He has a personality, God is seen as one’s Buddy.  Prayer is meditation – quiet talking, often one-way talking, with the praying person speaking to God where God doesn’t necessarily answer verbally. Bible stories constitute one of many sources of morals and stories (Stage I believers write off many portions of the Bible as not useful, strange, or even harmful). Unitarians, Cafeteria Catholics, Reform Judaism are examples of Stage I religions.  Stage I religion is not necessarily worn on one’s sleeve.  Heaven is nebulous.  Hell is nothing literal.  Atheists are not a threat.  These are science-friendly people who are capable of skipping church without a sharp pang of conscience.  Most Beliefs are include an implied asterisk: there is a lot the believers don’t know, and they acknowledge this consciously.  To live a good life one must use the brain he or she was given.  It is not a threat to one’s religion that “God” might have designed a system that evolves.   Stage I religion is the marijuana of religion.  Believers don’t need their pushers badly.   They can choose their own holy books (e.g., the Gospel according to Thomas), just like users of marijuana can grow their own weed.  Much of the control of the use of Stage I religion/drugs thus resides with the user.  It’s a bottom-up mentality.

Stage II.  You can start feeling the tension between religion and science.  There are more ostentatious displays of belonging to one’s religion.  This is the intermediate stage between stages I and III.

Stage III.  Exhibit A is American fundamentalism. Believers fully abdicate all personal responsibility.   All actions, especially blatant violation of others liberties, are blamed on the Holy Book or the Man in the sky.  Believers proudly commit the sin of Adolf Eichmann—they do what they do because it is God’s will. God is Good, even when he mass murders babies, as he does in the Bible.  The Bible is Literal Inerrant truth.   Prayer is literal verbal communication.  Believers have a duty to boldly intrude into the most wrenching moral dilemmas of others, using the police power.  Fear of hell dominates everything else.  God loves us as an abusive parent.  Even agnostics must be converted or burned. Skepticism is evil when applied to church dogma.  A highly groupish religion, but women are excluded from roles of real power. Always keep a close eye on what everyone else does, because human natue is weak and sinful.  With regard to science exams, fill in ALL the blanks with “God,” no matter what the question.  Scripture is not controlled by the user.  It is carefully dictated by the pushers.  Stage III religion is top-down mentality: the orders and control flow in one direction only: from the pushers to the sheep.

What does any of this mean?  I’m not certain.  If you want to avoid falling into Stage III drugs or religion or drugs, maybe you should avoid Stage I religion or drugs.  I’ll have to keep a lookout for better evidence to determine whether Stage I drugs/religions are the first step onto truly slippery slopes. 

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Category: American Culture, Good and Evil, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (2)

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  1. Scholar says:

    I like a good toke every now and then (lies blatantly). Accordingly, I don't mind going to celebrate Passover/Easter dinner with family and even reciting the Biblical and Jewish stories. Usually I get baked, then have a nice meal, and then crash my car into a pole.

    I've seen the damage that real drugs can do though, but was able to learn kinda quickly that they are bad news compared to pot. The drug LSD just transmogrefies people into zombies, (I learned that one the hard way). In psychology class they taught us about how dangerous certain drugs were (pcp, heroin, OxyContin). Whereas, pot is impossible to overdose on (unless you try my buddie's stuff), and does not have violent side effects, (unless somebody ate the last slice of pizza). Seriously though, has anybody seen the damn lighter?

  2. I think you have a partial point, based on my own family's experiences. We were raised on Religion-Lite (Methodist and Presbyterian), but were encouraged by our parents to think things out for ourselves. My youngest brother ended up atheist, and my sister and I are mostly Episcopalian. The older of my brothers, though, who never really enjoyed the family's lively discussions of religion and other matters, is Independent Baptist (a branch that considers Southern Baptists sinful). Since he didn't want to think about it, he was vulnerable to people, in high school and college, who told him they had all the answers. This was relaxing to him, I think, and he went into it whole-heartedly. Now, from deep within his preconceptions, he does study the Bible, but since he believes it to be literal and inerrant, there's a limit to what he can learn from it.

    The main determinant of whether Religion-Lite is a slippery slope is, I think, whether you think about your religion. If you think deeply about it, you'll end up somewhere else, whether a different religious point of view or dispensing with religion entirely. If you just run the dogma through a quick ridiculousness filter, you'll probably stay with it for a while, and raise your kids in it. If you start to think about it, get scared, and decide to turn your religious thinking over to someone else, then you're careening down the slope.

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