Monday, August 26, 2013

 Putin Declared War on Gay Families, It Was Time for Mine to Leave Russia

Masha Gessen (center in white T-shirt) and other protestors outside the State Duma, in Moscow, on June 11, 2013.
Masha Gessen (center in white T-shirt) and other protestors outside the State Duma, in Moscow, on June 11, 2013.
Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images
I stayed up nights trying to write this thing. Maybe it was going to be a Facebook post, or an open letter, or a column in a Russian magazine. Sometimes I thought it might be a speech or at least an extended toast—perhaps at my son's going-away party. But I never wrote it down or said it, except, over and over, in my mind.
I started drafting the first lines of this speech/column/toast at the end of 2012, when the Duma, the Russian parliament, was about to vote on a bill that would outlaw the adoption of Russian orphans by U.S. citizens. At the radio station where I worked, I convened a meeting to discuss how we were going to cover this development. “They aren’t really going to pass it,” said one staffer, an experienced political reporter.
“Watch them,” I said.
When I came home that evening, my son was practicing, and as I cooked dinner, I started work on the speech. “Do you hear that?” it began. “Do you think he would be playing the clarinet if he hadn’t been adopted by an American citizen?” It was a complicated argument. I am Russian, but I also have a U.S. passport, because I lived in the United States for a dozen years starting when I was a teenager. I was an AIDS reporter and an AIDS activist there, and after I returned to Russia in the early ’90s, I continued to write about AIDS. This was how I met Vova, who lived in an orphanage for the children of HIV-positive women, and adopted him. (He was negative.) At the time, no other Russian citizen would have adopted him, so great was the fear of AIDS, and so rare were adoptions generally.
It’s not that I think that subjecting your child to a decade of grueling music lessons is the best thing a parent can do. It's just that when Vova was 3, he didn’t talk. He responded to speech unreliably. It was frustrating for all of us. But could he ever dance. And sing. And spend hours with his cassette player. Music was his language, and music lessons gave him the ability to communicate—and the confidence to do so. In the end, music was also how he learned to speak. At some point, I had the inspiration to buy lots of contemporary Russian pop and rock and start playing it in the house. Within days, Vova was speaking to us, using whole phrases borrowed from the songs.
Now he was practicing for auditions at American high schools. We had discussed the idea of a boarding school in the United States—there are a couple of specialist schools that offer musical training that not only is better but is also much less sadistic than what he would get in a similar high school in Russia. Last summer, he went to summer camp at one of those schools and got religion: I hadn’t had to remind him to practice all fall. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have him suddenly living so far away, and I suspected that he couldn’t quite picture it either, but we reassured each other that he would come back for three full months in the summer and a month in the winter, and that the semesters in between would be broken up, too. He would be spending five months of the year at home, able to play with his dog and fight with his sister.
The auditions were in late January. I continued to draft my op-ed in a hotel room as I ironed his audition shirt. Vova had already been offered admission and a merit scholarship at one of the schools. The Russian parliament, meanwhile, voted for a law banning “homosexual propaganda,” which was defined as the “dissemination of information that may harm the spiritual or physical development of minors, including forming in them the erroneous impression of the social equality of traditional and non-traditional marital relations.” I had been disseminating that sort of information in front of the minors in my own home for more than a dozen years. Some of my friends had gone to protest in front of the Duma, and some of them had been badly beaten. One of my closest friends, a straight man, was videotaped debating a Russian Orthodox activist. The following day, he was fired from his job teaching biology at a Moscow high school.
“Do you know what playing the clarinet involves?” my open letter, or whatever it was by now, asked. By the age of 4, Vova was speaking, but no one except my girlfriend and me could understand what he was trying to say. I took him to a speech therapist, who said his facial muscles were partially paralyzed: He literally could not form the sounds he needed to produce comprehensible speech. She prescribed exercises and tongue-and-cheek massage. My girlfriend learned to do the massage and did it twice a day, and Vova did a facial-muscle workout three or four times a day. And now he plays the clarinet, an instrument that requires supreme control of the facial muscles.
The “homosexual propaganda” law and the ban on adoptions by U.S. citizens were of a piece. These bills came from the same place as the law on “foreign agents,” which severely restricted the activities of NGOs that receive funding from abroad, and changes to the laws on espionage and high treason, which, last fall, essentially brought back language from the 1930s. In Russia, you can now accuse anyone of espionage or treason for doing just about anything.
Here’s how all this came about: When more than 100,000 Russians came out to protest rigged elections in December 2011, Vladimir Putin looked at them and saw The Enemy. In Putin's mind, anyone who opposes his rule opposes Russia itself. So the protesters must have been foreigners, or, if not, they had to be The Other. Early on, he accused then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of having personally inspired the protests. A few months later, this idea of The Other turned into the laws on foreign agents and espionage and into the ban on American adoptions--and eventually into the law on “homosexual propaganda,” for no one represents Western influence and otherness better than gays and lesbians.
To mobilize his shrinking constituency, Putin needed a war, so he declared one. But to fight a war, you need not only to identify an enemy, you must also paint that enemy as both dangerous and less than human. Patriarch Cyrill, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, has proclaimed that the international trend toward legalizing same-sex marriage is a sign of the coming apocalypse; that sort of rhetoric establishes imminent danger. In an April 2012 video that has recently gone viral, the deputy head of the Kremlin's propaganda machine screams that when gay men die in car accidents, their hearts should be burned or buried deep underground, lest they be transplanted into a human being. This establishes that we are less than human.
“The Americans want to adopt Russian children and bring them up in perverted families like Masha Gessen's,” said St. Petersburg politician Vitaly Milonov, bringing together homosexual propaganda, adoptions, and foreign agents quite nicely. He said this in an interview with the country's largest tabloid in late March, when scholarship offers started to come in from the three schools where Vova had auditioned. My mental blog post was starting to sound desperate. “He isn’t coming back,” I would say, shaking my fist. At this point, it was clear that he really wouldn’t be coming back, not even for vacations. In the new political and cultural reality, a court would easily decide to annul Vova's adoption, and I wouldn't even know it.
Vova left Russia in June. That same month, the ban on “homosexual propaganda” became law, the parliament banned adoptions by same-sex couples or single people from countries where same-sex marriage is legal, and the head of the parliamentary committee on the family pledged to pass a bill that would create mechanisms for removing children from same-sex families. That would include biological children. So that same month, we put our Moscow apartment on the market, and in August we began house hunting in New York.
In a week’s time, Vova will be installed at his boarding school, so I have been trying to be a better mother in our last few days together. I even managed to stay quiet when he got in the car wearing his headphones. I was rewarded for my angelic patience with an opportunity to showcase it even more: Vova offered to plug his iPhone into the car's sound system. It turned out to be a surprisingly palatable playlist, with lots of Nina Simone, the Russian singer-songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky, and other musicians whose voices I recognized.
“Now you’re going to hear my song,” said Vova, and a Russian song called “A City That Doesn't Exist” came on. He sang along the entire time—he has that teenage voice thing, when he’s already singing in a baritone but it sounds like his voice could crack at any minute, but it doesn’t. He sang, “In the distance I see a city that doesn't exist/ Where a wanderer can find refuge/ Where I an remembered and wanted/ Day after day, getting lost at times/ I am going to the city that doesn't exist.”
I felt a sudden urge to redraft my semi-abandoned open letter. But then the grand finale of Vova's playlist started up, and I remembered the day, a Saturday about five years ago, when I declared a cleaning blitz at our dacha and blasted this song. Vova ran out of his room screaming, “What is this?” and we danced to it, and then we put it on a loop and danced to it again and again, and he told me I couldn't dance. It was “It's Raining Men.” We rolled down the windows and enjoyed ourselves some homosexual propaganda.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Quote of the day

Neo: ... You already know if I'm going to take it.
The Oracle: Wouldn't be much of an oracle if I didn't.
Neo: But if you already know, how can I make a choice?
The Oracle: Because you didn't come here to make the choice. You've already made it. You're here to try to understand why you made it. [Neo eventually takes the candy] I thought you'd have figured that out by now.

-The Matrix: Reloaded

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Gay rights in Russia

 January 25, Kremlin-friendly journalist Anton Krasovsky invited a bunch of drag queens on his show on KontrTV, a Kremlin-owned channel. It was his personal protest against a proposed law in the Russian parliament, the Duma, which would ban distributing “gay propaganda” to minors. The law’s broad definition of “propaganda” would prohibit publicly discussing gay relationships, comparing them to heterosexual ones, or calling them “normal.” That is, it would effectively criminalize the process of coming out—so often the driving force for wider social acceptance of gays. Violations would be punishable by hefty fines and, for foreigners, potential imprisonment. Krasovsky had long been a Kremlin shill, but this seemed to break his avid appetite for serving the state. “I’m gay,” he said on the air. “And I’m as much of a person as you, my dear viewers, as President Putin, Prime Minister Medvedev, and the deputies of the Duma.”
The transmission was cut instantaneously. That night, everything Krasovsky had done for the channel was purged from its site. Later that night, he was fired—via text message.
Krasovsky and I had often clashed, but this summer, he wrote to me asking for advice, as life in Russia “had become unsafe and unproductive.” His mother now wanted to sell her house and move, because, Krasovsky says, “now all the neighbors know that I’m not a TV star but a fucking fag.”
When I contacted him for this article, I asked if anything had surprised him about coming out in Russia. He responded: “It wasn’t that I was surprised as much as I was gladdened to discover how amazing our people is. I get thousands of letters of support. Thousands. But only a few contain threats.”
In Moscow, one of my closest friends is Mike, a gay American journalist. In 2010, he met Fedya, a Russian seven years his junior. Mike called the next day to tell me he had met “the one,” and soon they were living together—nesting really. They made a conscious decision not to hide their sexuality. They held hands in the streets, they kissed in public, and, amazingly, no one seemed to mind.
One day, Mike and Fedya went to a party for Fedya’s older brother, a soccer fanatic. “We pull up to the house, and there is heavy-metal music playing, a bunch of dudes swilling cognac and vodka out of plastic cups. And we walk in and all heads snap in our direction,” Mike recounts. One of the friends, who had clearly spent most of the afternoon drinking, was watching with a wary, slanting look. Later that evening, he approached Mike: “I was sure he was going to try to pick a fight. Instead, he thrust a cup of cognac in my hand, raised his glass, and said, ‘It doesn’t matter what kind of love it is, as long as it’s true love.’ ”
This story of the party comes from an essay Mike wrote about Fedya’s family learning, grudgingly, to accept their son. It was never published, because Fedya’s mom worried about her friends’ reaction. Mike is Mike’s real name, but Fedya is not Fedya’s name.
Maria Kozlovskaya is a lawyer and she was asked to resign from her previous job at the Russian branch of a Western tobacco distributor. “My boss said we don’t align on certain core principles,” Kozlovskaya says. “She thought that gays are all pedophiles who corrupt children.” Kozlovskaya came out to her mom about seven times, and, each time, her mom pretended it was news.
Kozlovskaya works in gay advocacy in St. Petersburg, where there has been a spike in anti-gay violence. (There are no official statistics, but Kozlovskaya’s group, the LGBT NETWORK, estimates that 15 percent of LGBT people were assaulted last year.) “People are changing their behavior to protect themselves,” Kozlovskaya says. “They don’t wear rainbow pins anymore, they don’t hold hands outside.”
Recently, when Kozlovskaya and a client—an assault victim—arrived at the courthouse, they were met by a group of skinheads. “They egged me and beat up the victim,” Kozlovskaya says. “We called the police, but they didn’t come.”
There is a group in Russia called Occupy Pedophilia run by a neo-Nazi named Maksim “the Hatchet” Martsinkevich. The group uses young men to lure older men into sexual encounters, at which point Maksim, usually shirtless, interrogates them on camera before pouring a bottle of urine on their heads.
Dozens of these videos can be found on YouTube. “Hello, my dear young lovers of extremism,” says Maksim in one. “As usual, I am without a shirt. Why? Because I am very poor. All my money goes to growth hormones, to anabolics ... to look good.” In his interrogations, he asks, in exhaustive detail, who is a top, and who is a bottom, and who likes to suck whose “pee-pee.”
One young man in the city of Pskov was targeted by the Hatchet and complained to officials. In return, the Hatchet and his goons posted a 15,000 ruble ($450) bounty on his head. Terrified, the young man came out to his mother and asked for her help. His mother said she didn’t care about his sexual orientation and dragged him off to file a police report.
The same thing happened to a young man in Perm, in the Ural Mountains. He told his mother; she promptly disowned him.
In May, a group of young men in Volgograd was sitting around drinking beer. “In the course of the conversation, it became clear that their 23-year-old friend was a homosexual, which enraged the rest of the group,” according to a news report. At first, they started to beat him. Then they stripped him and began shoving beer bottles into his anus. Two bottles fit, whole, and a third made it part of the way in. By this point, he was unconscious, so his friends put some cardboard under him and tried to set it alight. They failed, and left, but it dawned on them that he might turn them in. “One of the young men took a boulder weighing about 20 kilos and threw it eight times onto the head of the victim.”
The man’s mourning friends posted testimonials online. One wrote, “He had no signs of homosexuality.”
This winter, my friend Andrey, who is gay, was diagnosed with HIV. By then, he was 105 pounds and his vision was going. Andrey was stuck in the hospital for five months, surrounded by heroin addicts and convicts, who make up most of Russia’s HIV cases. His Moscow friends—a hip, progressive bunch—started a private Facebook group to help fund his treatment and schedule visits so he was never alone. “I was afraid that they’d judge me,” he says. “I am still in total shock at how incredible my friends are.”
Andrey is out of the hospital and on meds that have restored his health but are hell on his joints. “I don’t know whether to tell people,” he says, referring to his diagnosis. Russia has one of the fastest-growing HIV rates in the world, but, Andrey says: “There is no information on it anywhere. Everyone speaks in whispers about it here. Even the doctors.”
In February, as the gay-propaganda law made its way through the Duma, a popular Moscow magazine called Afisha ran a rainbow flag on its cover. Inside were the stories and portraits of 30 gay men and women of Moscow. They were lawyers, entrepreneurs, nurses, and I.T. specialists; there was even a welder named “Sergei Ivanov,” the Russian equivalent of John Smith. They told the stories of their “kaming aut”, which has become Moscow slang for any moment of honesty.
One subject was Alexander Smirnov, a press attaché in the Moscow mayor’s office. “I hide the fact that I’m gay,” he told Afisha. “If someone at work starts joking about fags, I smile like an idiot.” He broke his silence after hearing Putin and Medvedev boasting that there was no anti-gay discrimination in Russia. Smirnov predicted to Afisha that, after the article appeared, “they’ll quietly ask me to turn in my resignation.” A few days after publication, that’s exactly what happened.
Sasha, an acquaintance of mine, was 40, single, and childless. Shortly before I left Moscow last fall, she had approached our mutual friend Boris, a raucous young gay man who co-owns several of the restaurants and bars we loved to linger in. She and Boris both belonged to the cozy cocoon of the city’s old intelligentsia, so she asked Boris if he’d father a child with her, and he agreed. This was not kept secret, nor did people seem to judge their unorthodox non-coupling.
On June 18, their daughter, Elena, was born. “I am incredibly, incredibly grateful to and happy for our daddy Boris,” Sasha wrote on Facebook. The accompanying picture gathered more than 1,000 likes and hundreds of ebullient notes. I’d never seen this circle await a child so eagerly.
And yet, although Elena was born the day the Duma passed a law banning foreign adoptions by gay couples, and a week before Putin signed the gay-propaganda bill into law, no one drew a connection between her birth and a legislative push that prohibits anyone calling Sasha and Boris’s relationship “normal.” People welcomed Elena because everyone adored Sasha, and everyone adored Boris, and everyone in Moscow loves babies.
When I asked Boris’s permission to tell this story, he balked, and agreed only after I promised that I wouldn’t use their real names. I pointed out that he and his boyfriend had been photographed in Afisha’s kaming autissue and used their full names. That was four months before the law passed, he explained. Since then, “everyone’s gone savage here.”
Julia Ioffe is a senior editor at The New Republic.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

A Reply to My Critics
Responses to Thomas Joseph White, Francesca Aran Murphy, and Paul Griffiths
Robert N. Bellah
Perhaps it was inevitable in a symposium organized by First Things that all three commentators fault my book for not taking the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ as the center of my story, when the fact of the matter is that my book didn’t reach chronologically to the life of Jesus. That’s because Religion in Human Evolution, large as it is, is a fragment. I had originally intended to bring the book up to the present, but when in 2010 the manuscript had become so tall that it could almost tip over I realized that it must go to the publisher with the hope for another (inevitably smaller) book to complete what I had originally hoped to do. I rationalized this decision on the grounds that it did achieve, I hoped, one major point that was central to my argument: By looking at where religion came from rather than where it was going, I could avoid what I thought were the major defects of most previous efforts to account for the evolution of religion—namely, determinism and reductionism.

It was precisely in an attempt to defeat efforts to reduce religion to deterministic and reductionist biological causes that I undertook at my advanced age a fairly serious education in biology so that I could show that those accounts could not be substantiated in biological terms. I was then also concerned to avoid sociological or economic determinism by showing instead that religion, from the earliest forms to the great transformations of the Axial Age, had its own inner dynamic and creativity, which made it impossible to treat it as a “variable” determined by its social environment, however much it interacted with and responded to that environment.

So I wish my critics had focused more on what I did do than on what I didn’t do. But under the circumstances, that was understandable. Theologians will be theologians, I suppose.

Francesca Aran Murphy, in her emphasis on freedom, comes closest to getting at what I was most trying to do in this book, and her criticisms are off the mark only by a little. She and I share a great admiration for Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, which has been central in both of our lives. However, she sees Huizinga following Plato when he, in the Laws, wrote that “man is made God’s plaything, and that is the best part of him,” but she does not see me doing so. Why does she imagine that I don’t affirm Plato as Huizinga does? Nothing in what follows the Plato quote in Religion in Human Evolution indicates any disavowal on my part. And the fairly long and largely ecstatic treatment of Plato in the chapter on Greece in the Axial Age would certainly suggest to most readers that I am a Platonist.

She comes to her conclusion in part because elsewhere in the book I quote Kant with approval and so must believe, as she thinks Kant does, that freedom is purely negative, “freedom from,” rather than “freedom for the fulfillment of our natures.” But of course, Kant specifically thinks of the freedom at the basis of the categorical imperative as positive—that is, the freedom to treat oneself and all others as ends in themselves, thus producing a “kingdom of ends,” which is the ideal society. Plato and Kant arrive at their conclusions in very different ways, but both see freedom as for something.

After largely agreeing with my argument, Murphy writes, “It is quite impossible for an orthodox Christian theologian to buy into Bellah’s narrative taken as a whole.” That raises the question of what “Bellah’s narrative as a whole” really is, something that bedevils all the contributions to the symposium (and preoccupied much of the discussion at the seminar last December as well). But for now, let’s leave aside “my narrative” and take up the issue of what is and isn’t possible for orthodox Christians. Murphy is attentive to my references to Huizinga and then to Plato, yet she ignores my reference to Blaise Pascal, who makes a rather surprising appearance in a chapter on my very lukewarm account of “religious naturalism.” There I quote him affirming not the God of the philosophers but God incarnate in Jesus Christ. Perhaps Pascal appears where he does to make a point not entirely incompatible with “orthodox Christian theology.”

While I am honored by Thomas Joseph White’s assertion that Religion in Human Evolution is “the greatest work of liberal Protestant theology ever,” I nonetheless would like to decline the honor. I wrote my book as an example of one possible kind of contemporary social science, interdisciplinary even to the point of including natural science along with social sciences and the humanities. Still, I believe that all our categories overlap, and so my book does not require excluding revelation and metaphysics but is, on the contrary, open to them in a variety of ways. A book can address topics of theological import without being a book of theology.

That said, it is probably “liberal Protestant” that gives me more trouble than “theology.” I consider Paul Tillich one of my three great teachers. I know he is often categorized as a liberal Protestant, but he doesn’t fit. He was a critic not only of liberal Protestantism (for just the reason White cites: It had liquidated itself into secular humanism) but also of Protestantism itself. His book The Protestant Era was first proposed as The End of the Protestant Era?, but his publisher didn’t want a question mark in the title; he then titled it The End of the Protestant Era, but Protestant friends felt that seemed to suggest he was becoming Catholic, so he ended up with the title we know.

Tillich’s criticism of Protestantism itself, which was very deep and led to his feeling that he lived at the end of “the Protestant era,” was based on his understanding of Christianity. He consistently affirmed “the Protestant principle,” which is in essence prophetic religion that calls everything on this earth into question relative to a transcendent conception of God. However, the Protestant principle also requires what he called “Catholic substance,” in the absence of which the Protestant principle turns into sheer criticism, which finally turns on itself and becomes nihilistic. For Tillich, the essence of Catholic substance is sacramentalism, and it is exactly that which Protestantism abandoned. First, orthodox Protestantism proclaimed the Word and the Sacrament; then it became the Sacrament through the Word; and then it became just the Word. For example, when Karl Barth said the Word of God did not contain the sentence “Thou shalt light candles,” he made Tillich’s point. Even more crushing was Tillich’s claim that Protestant theology had abandoned love as the central theological virtue in place of the all-consuming emphasis on faith.

For me, accepting Tillich’s criticism of liberal Protestantism, and of Protestantism itself (though not the Protestant principle), meant that I could only be a small-p protestant. Through my decades of involvement in the Berkeley Graduate Theological Union, where I was an adjunct professor from the time I first came to Berkeley in 1967, and especially owing to my close collaboration with faculty and graduate students at the Jesuit School of the GTU, I lived in a heavily Catholic atmosphere even in so secular a place as Berkeley. Though I had been raised as a Presbyterian I ended up an Episcopalian, where liturgy and the Eucharist in particular met my need for a sacramental religious practice. So I ended up a small-c catholic (or Anglo-Catholic) as well as a small-p protestant. For all these reasons, I don’t want to be called a liberal Protestant theologian, however great.

To the extent that I’ll accept the honor of being called a theologian, it’s along the lines of what Tillich himself described in a talk to the Harvard Overseers of 1959. He said that all academic study in the humanities, and especially in religion, must combine detachment or distance with participation: “All detached knowledge remains hypothesis. It is preliminary; but participation brings the subject matter into us or us into it. Such participation produces the eros and the passion which inspire the teaching without destroying the scientific soberness.” In the empirical cases I treat in my book, revelation and metaphysics are not parked at the door.

On the contrary, several have significant existential meaning to me. “Nothing is ever lost” became my mantra. In the case studies of my book I sought the passion of participation that Tillich rightly recognized must complement detached analysis. My treatment of the biblical Hebrew prophets in my chapter on ancient Israel takes me back to my high school church experience, when I first read them and where they indelibly formed in me a social Christianity that I have never abandoned. I especially identify with Jeremiah, with his terrible burden of being called by God, though he dearly wished God had chosen someone else. Through much of my adult life I have been reading Plato and Aristotle, Aristotle long before I read After Virtue, but with increasing understanding after that. I first read Confucius and Mencius in classical Chinese in my first year in graduate school, where I was combining a degree in sociology with East Asian languages. They have never left me. In my research on ancient India, where I was completely a novice, I met the Buddha of the Pali Canon for the first time, despite my long familiarity with Mahayana Buddhism in East Asia, where the “historical Buddha” is completely overshadowed by the Bodhisattvas. I was entranced with what I found: such wonderful, wise, and often amusing dialogues. Even in the chapter on tribal religion, I noted how much the Australian Aborigines, especially as described by the Australian anthropologist W. E. H. Stanner, and the Navajo, as described by my own undergraduate teachers at Harvard, have meant to me.

So I don’t entirely deny that there is theology in my book—indeed, what would it be if there weren’t? And perhaps White will insist that I’m being too ingenious in my use of Tillich to parry the liberal Protestant label. I’m willing to concede that it’s the theologian’s prerogative to define theological categories. But I’d like to challenge White’s sociological assumptions about theological traditions.

He notes the irony of my remarkable achievement of a liberal Protestant theology just at the moment when liberal Protestantism is in eclipse. I think that is more of an open question than he does. The “eclipse” may be due to the triumph of liberal Protestantism. By so invading secular humanist culture that it lost its own distinction, it won, after all, by transforming secular humanist culture itself. There is more than a little evidence that most Americans, for example, would assent to unmarked liberal Protestant beliefs more often than to unmarked orthodox alternatives, and that this would be true not only for most mainline Protestants but also for most Catholics and even most Evangelicals.

I joked in our seminar that liberal Protestantism had died and been reborn; it is called “religious studies.” Religious studies is not a homogeneous field, but I think there is more than a little truth in what I said, and that the replacement of theology departments with religious studies departments in most American universities (and now in Europe and Asia too) is a sign that liberal Protestantism as White envisages it is alive and well, being taught to tens of thousands of students every year.

There are other signs of triumph. Many have noted the process of “Protestantization” of the “world religions” (the very term is a liberal Protestant invention). Reform movements in Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, even Islam, with Reform Judaism being a vivid example, all exhibit this process. Some have seen Vatican II in this light. It may seem that radical fundamentalism has won the day, but in sheer numbers the fundamentalists are probably eclipsed in most traditions by liberal reformist alternatives, who are quieter but more numerous. The emergence of a vigorous human rights agenda in global civil society is another partial offshoot of liberal Protestantism. And what the growing number of religious “nones” in America believe is far less likely to be atheism than some residual form of unorganized liberal Protestantism. One can find liberal Protestantism inadequate, though not without redeeming qualities, as I do, without presuming it is near death.

Paul Griffiths has some nice things to say about Religion in Human Evolution, but he soon begins the process of demolishing my book by questioning its entire substance on two grounds. First, he believes there is not enough evidence for such a story. At moments, it seems Griffiths is so skeptical about the adequacy of our knowledge of the things I try to cover in my book that he thinks no one could ever write a coherent account. Second, he claims I use what evidence there is willfully to suit myself. He argues that I am arbitrary, that I am telling “a story I like the sound of.”

Here, all I can say in my defense against the first criticism is that I did the best I could. Like any scholarly book, certainly any history book, it will be quickly outmoded in its details because of new scholarship. But in the thirteen years I worked on my book, I sought the most reliable accounts I could find. My book is deeply collaborative. I consulted not only basic texts where they were available (relying mainly on translations, though with key texts in more than one translation), but also on the classic secondary literature, as well as on the state-of-the-art secondary literature at the time of writing.

In many cases I consulted specialists, some of whom are at Berkeley but most of whom are scattered all over the world. (I have my doubts about modern information technology, but I have to say I could not have written this book without e-mail.) I sought and largely obtained readings that told me where I was wrong and helped me to get things right, or at least defensible, in area after area where I was not a specialist or, in the case of India, had no background at all.

If Griffiths wants to believe there is no objective basis for the stories I tell, he can of course do so. But I’m less of a skeptic. Scholars sometimes have to venture synthetic judgments, especially if we want to have something informed to say about large-scale questions of the sort I try to answer, however tentatively, however fallibly, in my book.

His second criticism turns on what I can only describe as a monomaniacal approach to metanarratives. He believes a metanarrative is “a narrative that, in the eyes of its users, frames and explains all other narratives and can be framed and explained by none.” When I take up the discussion of metanarratives in my second chapter (I have to wonder if he even read that chapter) I outline an entirely different view. I am concerned with many metanarratives and indicate that none of them can subsume all the others. For example, I say that “there is one story about origins that, at least among educated people, has a kind of priority today, and that is the story as told by science: in terms of the universe, scientific cosmology; in terms of life, evolution.” I go on to say that, although this is a story I can’t avoid, “that does not mean it is the only story. In the course of writing this book, which is a history of histories, and story of stories, I have become involved with many of the stories I recount to the point of at least partial conversion.”

In other words, although I take the scientific story as a necessary framework, I reject it as an adequate religious myth, though some people have proposed to do so. For example, the astute reader will note that Teilhard de Chardin, a favorite of those who want to fuse science with religion, is not mentioned once in my book. I engage in critical exegesis of such efforts and show what is wrong with their approach. Thus, if Griffiths had read carefully, he would know that the scientific story is to me only a convenience for exposition and not my myth. I call the religious interpretation of the scientific story of cosmology and biological evolution a “myth” not in a pejorative sense but to indicate that using that story for religious purposes has moved out of the realm of science.

I attempt to reclaim the use of the term myth that allows for pluralism, rather than the monism Griffiths presupposes, when I write: “Myth can be true, but it is a different kind of truth from the truth of science and must be judged by different criteria. . . . I would argue that the myths told by the ancient Israelite prophets, by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, by Confucius and Mencius, and by the Buddha, just to stay within the purview of this book, are all true myths. They overlap with each other and with [the scientific myth], but even in their conflicts, which are sometimes serious, they are all worthy of belief, and I find it possible to believe in all of them in rather deep but not exclusive ways.”

I know that this opens me to the charge of relativism from Griffiths (with which I will deal later), but it shows decisively that I have no mono-myth designed to replace all others. I criticize and disavow the use of the modern cosmological and evolutionary myth as an adequate religious story, and I certainly do not use it as “my story.” To the extent that Griffiths thinks that I do, and Murphy and White seem to indicate that they agree, they have all failed to read carefully enough. So when Murphy writes that as “an orthodox Christian theologian” she “cannot buy into Bellah’s narrative taken as a whole,” I wonder what narrative she is talking about. It is not my conscious intent to offer such a narrative.

When I move beyond biology to the realm of culture, I am leaving behind the scientific narrative that “all educated people accept.” I am developing insights from Merlin Donald, Jerome Bruner, and others to try to understand aspects of cultural evolution. Here I move into contested territory, since some scholars think that the idea of evolution applies only to biology and not to culture, and others believe that cultural evolution is defensible but have a different view from the one I adopted. I’m fully aware of the lack of scientific consensus on these issues. Still further, I am not so foolish as to imagine that the two issues I raise at the end of my conclusion—namely, the danger of ecological catastrophe and the necessity of sympathetic understanding of all human traditions—command anything like universal agreement. Here I am doing exactly what Griffiths thinks I should be doing: agreeing that “the metanarrative one has is one candidate among many.” I am not offering one more triumphalist metanarrative.

I find the charge bizarre. Triumphalist narratives usually offer a final stage that is a “fulfillment” of all previous stages. Yet the few hints I give about where the story I tell seems to be headed lead to exactly the opposite conclusion. I have profound doubts about the modern project itself, which has significant achievements but seems headed toward self-destruction. I argue that the theoretic, which modern culture tends to exalt, is not the final culminating stage that can dispense with everything before it. Yes, it is powerful in some ways compared with its predecessors, the mimetic and the mythic, but it is also vulnerable to great dangers precisely when it becomes disembedded from bodily practice and narrative.

Thus, when it comes to religion understood as “a conception of a general order of existence,” as Clifford Geertz puts it, I prefer Plato’s to that of modern science used as a religious myth. In fact, I think all the Axial myths are preferable to that latter alternative. I believe in multiple metanarratives, in many histories and many stories, and therefore I cannot accurately be accused of asserting a single triumphalist story, and especially not the one modern science has on offer. “Metanarratives don’t brook rivals,” Griffiths writes. His might not, but I find that claim a theoretical abstraction. As I show, during the Axial Age, world history did offer rivals—and it still does. One of the major points of my book is that we should avoid using a triumphalist scientific metanarrative by subsuming or resolving or domesticating this rivalry.

Griffiths takes up two positions that I find profoundly shocking. One is his casual acceptance of a future of mass extinction for humans and probably most multicellular life. He writes that “major extinction events are a regular feature of our planet’s life, with or without human involvement.” Here he is simply wrong. All previous extinction events have been caused by physical occurrences such as collisions with comets or meteorites or massive volcanic eruptions. Only this one is caused by humans, and only this one can humans do something about. I thought Catholics were especially concerned about life. How can Griffiths be so complacent about passively accepting the death of millions, or billions, or very possibly all human lives?

I have recently reread Gaudium et Spes and noted that, while it warns us against the illusion that flawed human beings can bring about the Kingdom of God on earth, we are not to use that as an excuse not to do all we can to bring our present world as close as possible to that end. Human weakness is rejected as an excuse for inaction in the face of worldly evils. I am certain that humans can still do a lot to mitigate the environmental disasters already beginning (how often in history has lower Manhattan been underwater?) but am not optimistic that we will act effectively in time. In this case, Kant’s “can” surely means “should,” and I can’t imagine Griffiths’ complacency in so serious a matter.

The other thing that shocked me was Griffiths’ horror at the idea of a world civil society, which he believes “would mean the end of the Church and, I think, of most other religious traditions.” Why on earth would he think that a global civil society would mean the end of the Church? History suggests otherwise. Freedom of religion is the very first commitment of civil society, going back to its origins in the eighteenth century. All the other freedoms that civil society requires, such as freedom of speech, of the press, of association, and so forth, are extrapolations from that one central freedom, the freedom of religion. For a long time the Catholic Church supported the idea of an established church and was doubtful about religious freedom, but several of the central documents of Vatican II indicate a strong affirmation of religious freedom. A world civil society of the sort I hope (as does a major strand of modern Catholicism) will flourish is therefore more likely to mean an end to religious persecution than the end of religion.

Jürgen Habermas and others also support the idea of a global civil society. We have a global economy that transcends and intimidates all nations, but we have nothing above the nation-state to mitigate the dangers of the unconstrained use of national power, even for genocide. Further, nationalism is one of the greatest dangers in our world today, especially since the two most powerful nations in the world, the United States and China, are its two most nationalist. The idea of a war between China and the United States is not inconceivable as things are going at the moment, but that would be disastrous and could lead to the same consequences as environmental disaster.

In any event, a global civil society open to pluralism is already beginning to show its head. I was in China twice in 2011 and saw the hope young intellectuals there had that such a development could mitigate the authoritarianism of their own country and lead to a genuine engagement of China with the other leading nations of the earth. These young Chinese wanted a civil society with no state ideology—not Marxism, not Confucianism—but rather the open discussion of all the alternatives, in which a chastened Confucianism would have a voice, though only in dialogue with the traditional religions of Buddhism and Daoism, as well as with Christianity, a growing religion in China and the faith, as these young intellectuals well knew, of many Chinese dissidents.

Whether it is an all-consuming “metanarrative” or the supposed anti-Christian consequences of a world civil society, Griffiths consistently suspects that I am offering some kind of mono-myth that would swallow up everything else: “If Bellah’s metanarrative is true, this Christian one must be false—because his account requires Christians exactly not to offer this narrative as a metanarrative.” The non-relativistic pluralism that I espouse is simply incomprehensible to him, as it was to many of the symposium participants. When I recite the Nicene Creed in church I think I am asserting a metanarrative not so far from his, although he can’t imagine that I could seriously believe it. But I do. I wrote Religion in Human Evolution not as a narrow professional undertaking but as a work of social science that I value existentially, because it tries to bring into clearer focus what role religion has in the development and flourishing of the human animal. And I’ve studied Navajo religion, which evokes in me insights I cherish rather than a demand that I reject it as a competing “metanarrative.”

As I read Griffiths’ commentary, I have to wonder, has he really read my book? The last thing I am arguing for is “generic sociological and historical categories, not theological ones, that [will] inform the self-understanding of the citizens of the hoped-for world civil society.” What I believe is exactly the opposite, as I affirm in the crucial quotation from Thomas McCarthy, Habermas’ leading American interpreter, in the penultimate paragraph of my book: “The conceptual point is this: By their very nature, the universal cannot be actual without the particular, nor the formal without the substantive, the abstract without the concrete, structure without content.”

And so it follows that “from our present perspective, it is clear that the irreducible variety of hermeneutic standpoints and practical orientations informing interpretive endeavors, however well informed, will typically issue in a ‘conflict of interpretations’ and thus call for a dialogue across differences.” Our religious convictions will make vital contributions to any world civil society that is fit for actual human beings.

Griffiths finally finds my book pointless. Thankfully, the other commentators to some degree seem to think that I succeeded in fulfilling the two goals I set for myself. First, a serious look at the present state of work in evolutionary biology shows that it by no means requires an absolutely determinist and reductionist view. Many leading biologists recognize the sentience, creativity, and participation of organisms in their own evolution as being there from the beginning and believe that genetic mutation is only one part of the story, not its absolute foundation. Conserved core processes are able to defend themselves from genetic changes that would destroy them, while encouraging changes that might enhance them. For these and other related reasons, attempts to use biology to explain culture need not have grim reductionist consequences. We’re spiritual by nature, as it were.

Second, in my chapters beginning with tribal religion right up to the Axial Age, I argue that religion involves a quest for comprehensive meaning that has its own internal motivation. It occurs within and interacts with other spheres of society and culture, but what it produces can never be reduced to those environing spheres. I reject the older, often taken-for-granted economic determinism in the long story I tell, and I also reject the newer turn to power determinism that is so popular among the postmodernists. Thus, in terms of both biological and cultural history, I argue for freedom and creativity rather than determinism and reductionism. This is surely of some help to those students of religion who already intuit that to be the case, as Murphy suggests most of us do.

Beyond that, I take every case on its own terms, affirming revelation and metaphysics where I find them, and also the claim to the truth of their own metanarratives, which can never be subsumed into “my metanarrative.” I believe there is truth in all of them, including the tribal ones. All of them deserve our respect. That does not mean all of them are to be believed as equally true, which I have never affirmed. But it does mean we can learn from all of them.

Robert N. Bellah is Elliott Professor of Sociology Emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

When you dull pain and hide it from dull your joys as well.

-FitzChivalry and the Fool