IF YOU want an example of what really thorough religious reporting looks like, this week’s comes from The Washington Post, where Stephanie McCrummen went to a small town in Alabama to discover what small-town Southern Baptists think of Donald Trump.
The framing device was lovely: the preacher was working his way through the Ten Commandments, one for every Sunday. What would he do when he came to the seventh? After all, even the Baptists of Alabama are aware that Trump has been married three times.
To judge from both the photograph of the congregation and from the choice of interviewees, the spine of the congregation is frightened old people. What frightens them are black people and Hillary Clinton: “‘She hates me,’ explained one, sitting in the pastor’s office one day. ‘She has contempt for people like me . . . who love God and believe in the Second Amendment. I think if she had her way it would be a dangerous country for the likes of me.’”
Then there is Sheila Butler, a 67-year-old Sunday school teacher, who told the reporter that America was “moving towards the annihilation of Christians”.
“‘Obama was acting at the behest of the Islamic nation,’ she began one afternoon when she was getting her nails done with her friend Linda. She was referring to allegations that President Barack Obama is a Muslim, not a Christian — allegations that are false.
“‘He carried a Koran and it was not for literary purposes. If you look at it, the number of Christians is decreasing, the number of Muslims has grown. We allowed them to come in.’
“Linda nodded. It wasn’t just Muslims that posed a threat, she said, but all kinds of immigrants coming into the country.
“‘Unpapered people’, Sheila said, adding that she had seen them in the county emergency room and they got treated before her. ‘And then the Americans are not served.’
“Love thy neighbour, she said, meant ‘love thy American neighbour.’
“Welcome the stranger, she said, meant the ‘legal immigrant stranger.’
“‘The Bible says, “If you do this to the least of these, you do it to me,’ Sheila said, quoting Jesus. ‘But the least of these are Americans, not the ones crossing the border.’”
One of her horrifying childhood memories is being sent to stay with relatives when the civil-rights march from Selma came into town, because her parents were afraid of violence. What to the outside world is one of the most glorious chapters of American history appears to here as a bloody revolution and race war narrowly averted.
They don’t find these dreadful lies in the Bible. They pluck them from the airwaves, from cable television, and perhaps from social media. It is a story to make any journalist shudder at the power our trade has for evil. As for doing good — well, people such as McCrummen can show us the world accurately.
OR PERHAPS we could just take lots and lots of drugs. That seems as sensible a reaction as any to her article.
But even that may not get us far enough from reality: the philosopher Jules Evans had a piece in Aeon magazine about what he calls the mystical theory of psychedelics, introduced by Aldous Huxley in his little book The Doors of Perception, about his experiences on Mescaline. Evans lists five tenets of the theory, of which the most important is that taking these drugs will lead to “a mystical experience . . . timeless, ineffable, joyful and noetic (you know that it is true)”.
The second is that this ineffable experience is what all religions are really about.
These propositions, he says, have come back into fashion in recent years as a result of the increasing scientific exploration of the effects of such drugs. He wishes that they were true and, in some sense, believes that they are; but honesty compels him to point out that, in a scientific sense, they simply aren’t.
Not all religions converge on the idea of a mystical unity in the world. Followers of Huxley, Evans writes, “tend to rank religions and mystical experiences hierarchically. All religions are one, but some are more one than others. Unitive non-dual experiences are more true, while dualist experiences (i.e. personal encounters with God or a spirit) are less true.”
But this, as he says, is a theological position, not a scientific one. And people who take psychedelic drugs interpret their experiences in the light of their expectations. Westerners who take Amazonian preparations encounter “a totally benevolent life-coach, not dissimilar to the Jesus one meets on contemporary churches”.
The natives whose drinks they share have entirely different experiences. They don’t think that their problems are caused by past experiences, but by present sorcery. They take the drugs to find who is cursing them, how to lift it, and how to get revenge.
Taken together, these two stories make all religious experience and practice seem like a vast experience of collective self-deception.
But, then, where did the ludicrous idea come from that “If you do this to the least of these, you do it to me”? Pre-emptive guilt, or somewhere else?