I have this really amazing group of friends. We're all writers, and we, like most writers, talk about everything under the sun. In case you aren't close to any writers, I'll tell you we can be some of the most fun, and most terrifying, people to have a conversation with. Like, I can tell you chapter and verse about Cossacks in the first world war, and why we say 'an apron' and 'naparies' instead of 'a napron' and 'naparies' and what a snow weasel looks like and where racoons used to live until we moved them all over the place for their pelts.
And then I can tell you about weaponizing smallpox on a subway or this particular mushroom that kills you slow enough I could probably make sure I wasn't a suspect once you died.
We were discussing religion the other day and someone realized that while the rest of them always shared their views, I never shared mine. To which I explained that I don't have a religion. I was raised some mix of methodist and non-denominational Christian, and maybe if I'd started learning to be a Cultural Anthropologist before I had my crisis of faith I might have hung on to that.
But I didn't. I was distanced from my own religion when I started college.
"The only thing you absolutely have to do, to be an anthropologist, is to be able to turn off what you think the world is and allow them to tell you what they think the world is."
This was said by someone who very carefully and intentionally taught me to see how humans from the beginning of time have used religion and the divine to control their populations. Anthropology teaches you to look at a people's religion from the inside--from themselves--and from outside--definitely outside your own view, as disconnected as you can manage--along with every other part of their culture. For better or worse, everything I see out of any religious system now is how it's built to institute that control. I'm not anti-religion. I respect your right to go wherever your faith leads you (within your own three-foot bubble).
Another thing that person taught me was that nobody wanted me, as an anthropologist, to ride in on my white charger of 'rightness' and fix things for them. I'm going to bend that rule now and talk about Religion vs State and control. I think this might be something we all need to hear.
That religious control used to go hand in hand with social control, with the rule of law (at least in the way ancient peoples knew law, which is frequently not the way we do, thankfully). Arguably, most of the worst things in our collective history of the world come from giving that push-pull of religion and state too little scrutiny. A society predicated on the control of religion turns into the Puritan abuse of anything 'other,' the Spanish Inquisition's attempt to further religious control, or nearly anything about the papacy that happened in the middle ages. Further back in history you have Tamarlane killing all the Christians he could find (though that may have been more a general "I want everyone dead" thing, since he took out a large chunk of the Hebrew population as well and also comes mostly from Christian accounts, who obviously weren't unbiased).
And I'd argue just as much bad comes from the state side of that coin. Depending on who you ask, the Holocaust was an action of state against as much religion as they could convince people was bad. Both Judaism and Catholicism impart a certain level of control over their believers above that of the state they live in, especially at the time, and the Roma peoples singled out also lived in a way that didn't afford the state a lot of control over their lives. That seems odd to us now, but it's important to remember that when Al Smith ran for president of the US in 1928 there was widespread concern that if he became president he was going to build a secret tunnel under the Whitehouse to the Vatican because clearly the Pope would run his presidency. Some people said the same thing about Kennedy in the 60's.
Religion has power over vast swaths of people, just like State (meaning whatever government you live under) does. It's better for all of us if neither of those things gets too much control. Whatever else people want to say about the intent behind the founding of the United States, the separation of church and state was important and intentional. Europe had just spent a few hundred years ripping itself apart over whether or not countries should be Protestant or Catholic. It seemed so much more sensible for government to remove itself from that, let people be what they were. The church was there to take care of their souls, the government just needed to make sure there was a navy and someone collected the taxes to pay for it.
Every day, in a million different ways, I see both sides of this coin arguing that everything should be theirs. People deeply seeded in religion want us to go back to some mythical time in the past where this was a nation run by Christians (though, I hate to break it to you, it is just as much now as it ever was). People disillusioned with religion say none of this religious claptrap should be allowed, because it's all bad.
I don't want to live in a world with no religious freedom, and that world could come just as easily from state control as it could from any one religion being in control. I know it doesn't seem like it right now, but a pendulum swings and whether the world right now is the over-correction or the reaction to the over-correction, it's clearly not done swinging.
I was raised to be an American who respected all religions. I'd like to think we're a country of people who were raised that way, since that's been the message on paper since the beginning days of us as a state. And that's important right now, not just because it's Christmas and the 'Keep Christ in Christmas' signs are popping up everywhere (and this is one concept I have giant issues with but that's a conversation for another day).
I'm not saying we need the rosy history glasses. This nation has never existed as a bastion of respect for other peoples. Our history is contradictory and difficult in the best of places. But we're not children anymore. We're nearly two-hundred and forty years old. It's time to pull up our big-kid pants and learn to be who our parents thought we could be. What they told us they wanted us to be.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
I know all the arguments about what they really meant. I also remember becoming an adult and realizing sometimes 'do as I say and not as I do' was really just "I'm human and occasionally stupid, but I think you can do better."
So let's do better. 2016 has been a flaming junk fire of epic proportions. For me personally, for the world, and depending on who you ask, for the country. 2017 is coming. There are so many things I can't do anything about. But I can do something about this. So here's my pledge to every living, breathing person out there. It'd be awesome if you'd pledge it back to me, but it's not required.
1) I promise to believe you and believe in you.
2) I promise to do my best to understand you even if I can't agree.
3) I promise to respect you, and your rights, and your feelings.
4) I promise to stand up for you if somebody else doesn't do those things, if you want me to.
5) I promise to remind you to respect others, their rights, and their feelings if you need it.
6) I promise to keep watching, keep thinking, and keep trying.
If you suffered through all that I promise I'll talk about something fluffy and fun next week. If you've got a suggestion, pop it in the box.
And maybe if people are interested we'll talk about my knee-jerk reaction to "Keep Christ in Christmas" later next week.