Monday, October 5, 2015

Holier Than Thou: My Problem With Orthodoxy

I am a formerly Roman Catholic atheist.  I was born into the faith and educated in it through seventeen years of Catholic school.  I was extremely devout until I was a young mother when for reasons that would seem mundane if I described them here I abruptly lost my faith.   It was as if I had been living inside a soap bubble, and it suddenly burst.  It was gone.  And that was that.

But that is not to say that I lost my interest in religion.   Or my knowing what it felt like to be part of a church that informs, comforts, and restricts a person’s day-to-day thoughts and actions.  My first two historical novels involve devout religious faith as part of the lives of my characters—as would certainly have been the case in South America in 1650 and 1868.  Now I am in the throes of writing a series based on the Ten Commandments along with themes of other evils left out of the Law of Moses.

During the time I was a practicing Catholic, orthodoxy was not an issue for me.  “Catholic” meant that the teachings of the Church were the same all over, so there was no question of sectarian competition.  One accepted it all or not at all.

I was in my thirties before I began to see how—within a sectarian form of religion—orthodoxy might work to narrow what was permissible, what was admirable, how one defined the difference between right and wrong.  In fact it was observing the life a Jewish friend that I began to see what orthodoxy could do to a person.

When I met this particular friend, she was working in a huge insurance company as a management trainer.  Despite serious physical disabilities from an early childhood case of polio, she flew around the US lecturing and training employees.  In her private life, she performed on stage and on the radio with her charismatic persona and lovely singing voice.  She gave inspiring and entertaining lectures that helped people concentrate on their opportunities instead of their challenges.  She was (and remains) irresistible.

But then, after her mother died, her father and her brothers, all rabbis, began to crack down on her activities.   As the years went by, especially after her father also died, her brothers’ ideas of what was right and proper for her constantly escalated.  All of a sudden they declared that it was immodest of her to present herself in public and speak before groups of that included men.  She complied, even though it meant quitting her job.  Not long afterwards they ordered her to confine her free-lance personal appearances to religious subjects.  And then they said she must confine her activities to religious venues.  And then to religious venues where only women were in attendance.  They made her smaller and smaller until she was practically invisible.

Whether in the context of Judaism, Islam, or Christianity, this is how orthodoxy seems to work.  The leader of a sect says X.  His (It’s never a her!) competitor in the Holier-Than-Thou race says 2X.  The rebuttal is 3X.  And off they go, making the rules stricter and stricter and stricter.

This rush to ultra-orthodoxy seems also to be affecting the secular side of life.  In politics, what does it mean to be conservative?  Or liberal?   Nothing seems to be enough.   It is not enough that President Obama has walked an extremely difficult path to get the country on an even keel and keep it there in such roiled waters, that he managed to break the color barrier to the presidency, that gay marriage is now the law of the land, that 36 million more Americans now have health insurance…  I could go on.  Several of my liberal friends rail against him for not doing _______, fill in the blank with whatever their personal pet peeve happens to be.

It is not enough for the Republican Conservatives in Congress that John Boehner has given our Democratic President all kinds of hell to deal with and halted much of Obama’s progressive agenda.  Boehner has not turned the country into a paradise for the right wing.  He has therefore been branded as the enemy of the orthodoxists in his party and has been forced to step down.

It is not enough that Pope Francis has changed the conversation and sought to find common ground where none seemed to exist.  He must be vilified because he has not jettisoned everything about the Church that some people happen to dislike.  He is a “fraud” and a “hypocrite” because he has not taken that aircraft carrier he is steering and turned it on a dime in the direction they want it to go.

What I find astonishing in these people is not that they still have issues.  I do too.  It is not that they want to speak out on what they think is still needed.  I do too.  It is that they become outraged when they do not get their own way IMMEDIATELY.  They seem to think they have a right to judge and DICTATE to the whole human race.

They want to be the head rabbi, the head imam, the head priest, the boss of the entire world and until they get their way, they declare an end to any form of civilized discourse.  They never softly say I disagree.  Shouting and name calling is their knee-jerk response.

A picture is worth a thousand words.  I recently came across a photograph by a splendid artist that says all these nearly one thousand words in one image.  His name is Boushra Almutawakel.  And here is his instantaneous indictment of the evils of creeping orthodoxy.  It is called Mother, Daughter, and Doll.

 Annamaria - Monday   


  1. That final image is incredibly powerful.

    The sad thing for me is that for many people (myself included) faith can play an important role in making us better individuals--but the problem is that far too many people think that individual faith needs to be imposed on other people's lives, rather than being a way to inform ourselves about how to make ourselves (singular) better people.

    One massive danger of orthodoxy is that it takes a conversation that should be internal (I, me, my relationship to the world and my beliefs) and forces it into the external: (we/you - what YOU MUST DO). That is incredibly dangerous, for all the reasons you mention.

    Ironically, the older I get, the better I get along with people who don't claim to share my beliefs--because most of the time, I discover they don't share my beliefs at all, mainly because they ascribe to exactly the orthodoxy you mention, and because that orthodoxy refuses to allow them to understand that it's OKAY for other people to act and be and behave differently...and we can and should love people on the basis of who they are as humans, not whether or not they agree with us on political, religious, or other issues.

    And...that ran on longer than I intended.

    1. You did not run on, Susan. Your points all add to the discussion. I heard on the radio this morning a report that corroborated what we are saying here: the conservatives running for the Republican nomination are denouncing Chief Justice Roberts because he is not a true conservative. Why because he did not vote 100% the way they would have wanted him to. I remain astonished. He looks as if he should be their hero to me. And I am more convinced than ever that polarization is the end of civil--and it seems also the end of intelligent, or even intelligible discourse.

    2. Sadly, I think we witnessed the end of intelligent discourse in the public sphere some time ago. This is yet another nail in the coffin.

      It's one reason I just stay quiet in public, or talk about seahorses. I don't expect anyone to believe or act the way I do--in fact, I love people being individuals and celebrate them for who they are--and it makes me so sad that other people don't feel the same way.

  2. Evolution is at fault, but every individual is to blame. Evolution has driven us, through the COMPETITION to survive and reproduce, to become who we are. But we, as individuals, are now sufficiently smart enough and self-aware enough (well, some of us...) to be able to CHOOSE to go against the grain of fear. Orthodoxy is driven by fear and greed, and it's a sure sign that there is a significant lack of depth in one's self-awareness and understanding.

    So sayeth I. :-)

    1. And so agreeth I, EvKa. Your point about evolution is an interesting and insightful one. It seems to me that orthodoxy is about fear and greed, instilling fear and motivated by greed for power. The men who demand more and more conformance want to show themselves and the world that they can control people. The creeps!

  3. From Lenny Kleinfeld:
    Fundamentalism is never about religion, let alone morality. It’s always and only about using religion as costuming and weaponry to impose total control over as much human behavior as possible, through violence. Doesn't matter what sect; the deal is always totalitarian theocracy.

    To which AmA answers: Thank you, Lenny, for saying in 1/100th of words I used the exact thing I was driving at.

  4. The family that preys together stays together!

  5. Some religions or sects or reform groupings do allow people to be who they are and partner with whom they choose and opt for their individual lifestyles.
    Some do not and impose their orthodoxy on their adherents, causing many people much pain, guilt and shame.
    In these days since the Civil Rights movement, women's movement and lesbian and gay movement, there has been a lot of social progress. Much more still needs to occur for many reasons.
    But in this day and age, the 21st century people do have the right to be who they are, choose their partners, marry or not, and not be discriminated against due to their lifestyles, sexual preferences or identities.
    I say people have a right to personal liberation, whether it's in their relationships or the right to dress however they prefer, dye their hair outrageous colors, etc. -- i.e., to listen to their own drummer and not be ostracized or penalized or made to feel guilt or shame over it.
    Many people have left their religions because of these issues and others, especially the child abuse scandal and inequity of women.
    Many people choose to stay in their religion for whatever reasons they need to do so -- and they should find acceptance and understanding.
    Bigotry hurts people first and foremost and human beings should not be hurt by religious figures and beliefs.
    As someone who has never been religious, I was brought up with one outstanding morale concept which was about respecting other people and treating them decently. Often religions sweep this aside to push their own agendas, often bigoted, as was done in the South during slavery and Jim Crow days.
    If religion does anything, it should make people feel good, feel hope and give people a sense of community, a place where they are accepted, not ostracized.

  6. I meant to add, too, that religion shouldn't control people nor ask that they hurt or impose their views on others.