Our Human Capacity for Self-Transformation
UPDATED: Well, this is exactly what I’m talking about, folks!
"Like the Geico Insurance slogan -- so easy a caveman can do it. Letting Jesus take care of our sin problem is so easy a child can do it," said Spaulding.
Religion is television. You read it here first. “So easy a caveman could do it.” And this anti-intellectual crap from a valedictorian!
However, there were some in the audience who said they were uncomfortable during the speech and felt the comments were inappropriate.
Yeah. I’ll bet there were.
There must be something wrong with them! Of course.
The exchange that didn't make it into “Root of All Evil?" - Richard Dawkins interviews Alister McGrath.
At about 28:42 into the interview, Alister McGrath says something that really set me off: “The point I’d want to make would be this, that what Christianity is saying is that there seems to be something wrong with human nature, that we just don’t posses the capacity to transform ourselves, that in some way in order to experience and enter into the redeemed life, something has to be done for us. It’s a question of not having the adequate resources to actually transform ourselves to be saved.”
Well, certainly I don't believe in the necessity of being “saved,” but this answer by McGrath gets to, I think, the crux of the religious mind and to my nonreligious one. I was surprised at my feelings upon hearing McGrath say this. I literally felt pain, and then a great deal of anger. This kind of attitude is a highly personal issue for me, and it brings up a deep-seated resentment which I shall attempt to explain here.
I perceive that all my life I have received similar messages, from many sources, that there was something “wrong” with me: You are not capable. This goal is beyond you, that adventure is too hard for you, you’re just a small town girl from North St. Paul and you will never be one of those people on television or high up in academia (and they’re pointy-headed intellectuals anyway; you don’t want to be like that!). You’re a nice girl. Don’t get too big for your britches. The world is dangerous; it’s no place for you. You’ll get hurt. You can’t handle the big, bad world out there.
Don’t think certain ideas – you’ll get all confused. Don’t ask those questions. We just aren’t supposed to understand some things. Women’s Lib is over with (this was the 1970s) and we’ve got all the rights we’ll ever get – don’t talk about a woman running for President or going into space. That’s just not possible. Don’t talk about science or evolution. What are you, in love with Carl Sagan? (Yes, I was fifteen years old and I was in love with Carl Sagan. Thanks, like any other fifteen-year-old I was horribly embarrassed about it, and even wondered if it was wrong after being teased about it.) What kind of young lady runs around and yelling with the boys after church? Getting all dirty, screaming and yelling? Why can’t you pretend to be a girl for a change? You’ll waste your life talking about outer space all of the time – learn to get interested in normal things. Besides, this isn’t you – we know who you are, and you’re just a little twit from a small town – who do you think you are? You seem to think that you’re some kind of star! Well, you’re just you, so be realistic, and quit being such a dreamer.
It makes me angry. Here I am, doing all these things that nobody taught or even showed me how to do – nobody taught me how to negotiate grad school or how to handle a foreign culture, to go on a trip by myself, or to walk in academic circles, or to work a highly stressful job in a museum – and I’m doing it! I’m not only doing it, but I doing pretty damned well at it. With very few role models, or with none in some cases.
I did transform myself! Goddamnit, I did! I had to. I had a lot of problems in that small town, and I made myself change! And not only that, I am transforming myself all the time. I don’t know how to go to grad school. I had never given a presentation before in my life. Yet the second I walked into class I was expected to become a young professional, and you know what, I did become one – and I’m good at it. Maybe my success so far has had something to do with the fact that I was expected to succeed, that my professors saw no reason for me not to succeed?
If the world had listened exclusively to the warnings of fearful people like Alister McGrath and to the mediocre minds in American small towns, we would never have invented fire, let alone traveled the planet (and into space), made art, or discovered science at all! We do have the capacity to transform ourselves! We are nothing if not capable of self-transformation. And there is nothing “wrong” with me. There is nothing inherently “wrong” with you or me or with human nature. What is up with Alister McGrath? What is up with the people in small town America? Why do they have such a degraded sense of themselves that they need to tell people not to try to improve themselves?
If I saw religion as it is presented to me actually helping people to achieve the kinds of things that I want to achieve, I would change my mind about it. But I don’t see that. I don’t see it solving people’s problems or freeing them of their fears and anxieties. Blue-collar people get blue-collar religious messages to make them stay blue-collar, and upper-class people (like Alister McGrath) get upper-class religious messages to justify their superior status. And increasingly in America, there is less movement between social classes (unless it's people's houses being foreclosed on).
Moreover, people in America are so paranoid and scared of their own shadows that increasingly we are a nation that doesn’t walk anywhere—lock yourself in your car, lock yourself in the office, lock yourself in your house with the television on. Not since people believed in werewolves has a nation become so insular.
I see religion teaching people to sit around and be passive. Great, yet more sitting – just what our obesity-plagued civilization needs. Just more television after all. I’ve worked alongside a lot of African-American women in low-paying jobs and from what I saw religion didn’t do diddly squat for them moving up in the world. They’re exhausted at work. They go to church for hours – several times a week – and then, bleary-eyed and exhausted at work with a mother or sister watching their sick or injured children (because of personal problems with men), they’re practically falling over at work yet talk about how God is “teaching me a lesson” because they can’t pay their electric bill or put enough food on the table. They think they're supposed to be joyful every single second. Well, all I can say is, God never “punished” me that way. Funny that God’s Will toes the line with a racist society (and a classist, sexist, and homophobic one).
Sit in church and listen to stories (or in the big megachurches, watch videos) of other people living their lives, and doing things it’s just assumed that you’ll never do. Because you’re you, but they are them. They are special - prophets and angels. You are sinners – nothing in yourselves. If you’re special, it’s only because Somebody Special made you. All you get to do is vote yea or nay. (But really, with the fear of hell thrown in, it’s not a true choice, is it?)
Do you begin to see my point about how religion was the first form of television? God was the world’s first celebrity.
No wonder Americans don’t believe in evolution! No wonder! When you have been brainwashed to believe that you “lack the capacity for self-transformation,” how in hell can you believe that an amphibian or an ape has great potential? How can you believe that nature itself does? Is it a coincidence that this idea of our personal inability and insufficiency has taken hold at a time in our nation’s history when more people mistakenly believe that IQ is static and strictly inherited, that one’s status in life is determined by one’s parents? (We still give lip-service to the bootstrap idea but surveys show that increasingly, Americans believe status in society is genetically determined.)
And so people invoke God, and show more interest in His supposed hijinks than in living their own lives. I have no problem with what people believe but holy Toledo, today it's walk your dog with Jesus, take a shower with Jesus, go to a megachurch and be surrounded by thousands of people (yeah, that's real personal) all doing the same thing like they belong to some kind of cult. Don't be an individual; don't be yourself. Nature must be acted upon from the outside, right? Just like you, you miserable sinner. Because nature is artificial and so are you. You’re a product, a thing, which suddenly appeared out of thin air like a rabbit out of a hat. “It takes more faith” to believe in the ongoing self-transformation of nature than to blurt out Goddidit, right? Just like it takes more faith to believe that a little girl from a redneck town in Minnesota could associate with “those people” and even be interesting to them, than to believe that she’ll get into some horrible kind of trouble and need to be rescued from her folly.
Well, I think it is evil to tell people that they lack this capacity. What kind of a faith is that? What kind of spirituality is that?