Ah, Christmas — the season for joy, tolerance, and goodwill amongst all. Usually in these days, media outlets queue up the glurge — the sappy stories, the tearjerker videos, and the essays about finding meaning in a season defined by religion and its observance. Everyone likes to tap into the happy memories and high ideals of the Christmas season.
Well, almost everyone. For some reason, Salon chose this week to offer two dyspeptic and nonsensical takes on religion, the most outrageous of which argues that one has to support rape in order to be Christian. God raped the Virgin Mary, so they argue, apparently without one single clue as to what the Annunciation actually was or what it means in Christian belief, as well as most other religions:
Though the earliest Christians had a competing story, in the Gospel of Luke, the Virgin Mary gets pregnant when the spirit of the Lord comes upon her and the power of the Most High overshadows her. …
The impregnation process may be a “ravishing” or seduction or some kind of titillating but nonsexual procreative penetration. The story may come from an Eastern or Western religious tradition, pagan or Christian. But these encounters between beautiful young women and gods have one thing in common. None of them has freely given female consent as a part of the narrative. (Luke’s Mary assents after being not asked but told by a powerful supernatural being what is going to happen to her, “Behold the bond slave of the Lord: be it done to me . . .”)
Who needs consent, freely given? If he’s a god, she’s got to want it, right? That is how the stories play out.
Talk about missing the point. One does not need to be a believer to understand the story told in Luke, which isn’t a tale of rape but a perfect assent on the part of Mary. Even stripped of its religious meaning, Mary is given the choice, asks a clarifying question, and then agrees to the, er, “nonsexual procreative penetration.” The Fiat and the Magnificat that later follows in the Gospel of Luke attests to Mary’s perfect cooperation with the Holy Spirit.
Furthermore, the gospels put Mary in a position unaccustomed to women of that time, whom Valerie Tarico notes were “chattel.” It is Mary who prompts Jesus to begin his public ministry in Cana, even after Jesus at first demurs (John 2:1-11). It is the women, and John the Evangelist, who see Jesus all the way through the Passion as the other disciples scatter, and it is the women who first recognize the risen Christ on the Sunday following it.
In case you don’t get Tarico’s point, she blames the “rapey” (her word) aspect of religion for everything from ISIS to the hook-up culture on college campuses:
Our struggle is made immeasurably harder by the presence of ancient texts that have become modern idols—texts that put God’s name on men’s desires.
The most extreme example may be a document published by the Islamic State, outlining rules for the treatment of sexual slaves, rules drawn from the Koran. Closer to home for most Americans is the awkward but widespread existence of Christian leaders who teach that a woman’s glory is in childbearing, and that a woman who fails to service her husband whenever he desires is failing to serve God.
But even closer to home for many is the shocking prevalence on college campuses and in society at large of sexual manipulation and coercion perpetrated by males who otherwise seem morally intact. One can’t help but notice that a large number of high profile cases involve high status males: fraternity members, a famous actor, a radio host, small town football stars and big league professional athletes—men, in other words, who think they are gods.
Yes, I’ve often noticed how men (and women, for that matter) on college campuses are so heavily influenced by religion. And I’m sure ISIS is also heavily influenced by the Christmas story in the Gospels, too, as well as Zoroastrianism and the Vestal Virgins of Mars. Oh, wait …
In short, this is sheer, tendentious nonsense that wouldn’t even pass muster in a college term paper. It also conflicts in part with the theme of another Christmas missive from Salon, which argues that religion is dying out amongst the same generation of campus-goers, thanks to the power of Richard Dawkins, Republicans, and television comics. No, really:
What is going on? How do we explain this recent wave of secularization that is washing over so much of America?
The answer to these questions is actually much less theological or philosophical than one might think. It is simply not the case that in recent years tens of millions of Americans have suddenly started doubting the cosmological or ontological arguments for the existence of God, or that hundreds of thousands of other Americans have miraculously embraced the atheistic naturalism of Denis Diderot. Sure, this may be happening here and there, in this or that dorm room or on this or that Tumblr page. The best-sellers written by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris—as well as the irreverent impiety and flagrant mockery of religion by the likes of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, House, South Park, and Family Guy—have had some impact on American culture. As we have seen, a steady, incremental uptick of philosophical atheism and agnosticism is discernible in America in recent years. But the larger reality is that for the many millions of Americans who have joined the ranks of the nonreligious, the causes are most likely to be political and sociological in nature.
For starters, we can begin with the presence of the religious right, and the backlash it has engendered. Beginning in the 1980s, with the rise of such groups as the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition, the closeness of conservative Republicanism with evangelical Christianity has been increasingly tight and publicly overt. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, more and more politicians on the right embraced the conservative Christian agenda, and more and more outspoken conservative Christians allied themselves with the Republican Party. Examples abound, from Michele Bachmann to Ann Coulter, from Mike Huckabee to Pat Robertson, and from Rick Santorum to James Dobson. With an emphasis on seeking to make abortion illegal, fighting against gay rights (particularly gay marriage), supporting prayer in schools, advocating “abstinence only” sex education, opposing stem cell research, curtailing welfare spending, supporting Israel, opposing gun control, and celebrating the war on terrorism, conservative Christians have found a warm welcome within the Republican Party, which has been clear about its openness to the conservative Christian agenda. This was most pronounced during the eight years that George W. Bush was in the White House.
What all of this this has done is alienate a lot of left-leaning or politically moderate Americans from Christianity. Sociologists Michael Hout and Claude Fischer have published compelling research indicating that much of the growth of “nones” in America is largely attributable to a reaction against this increased, overt mixing of Christianity and conservative politics. The rise of irreligion has been partially related to the fact that lots of people who had weak or limited attachments to religion and were either moderate or liberal politically found themselves at odds with the conservative political agenda of the Christian right and thus reacted by severing their already somewhat weak attachment to religion. Or as sociologist Mark Chaves puts it, “After 1990 more people thought that saying you were religious was tantamount to saying you were a conservative Republican. So people who are not Republicans now are more likely to say that they have no religion.”
In order to buy this, one would have to believe that the “wave” of secularization began sometime after Ronald Reagan retired from office. That’s nonsense on its face. Education got secularized at least two decades prior to that, with court rulings that forbade discussion of religion in public schools in the early 1960s. American social life became more secular at the same time, especially after the upheavals of the 1960s. The rise of the Religious Right was a reaction to secularization, not a precedent, as anyone who lived through that period could easily attest — which is why the reaction was conservative in nature, as in conserving those traditions in public life.
Phil Zuckerman later points to the child-abuse scandals of the Catholic Church as an inflection point for its retreat, but the real inflection point was Vatican II far earlier. Even with that, though, the number of Catholics in the world population is 1.229 billion and 17% of the overall global population, about what it was in 1970 (18%), according to Georgetown University. In the US, the number of self-identified Catholics has risen from 48.5 million in 1965 to 76.7 million in 2014. Georgetown also notes that Catholicism has the highest retention rate among Christians, and among the highest of all religions practiced in the US, which also tends to demolish Zuckerman’s point.
Judaism and Christianity have survived many periods of suppression, martyrdom, and attack. The idea that late-night comics and Richard Dawkins are existential threats to religious belief is a notion so ridiculous that only Salon could take it seriously.
Update: Fixed a typo that mentioned the “Gospel of Like” rather than Luke. I like Luke, but Luke ain’t Like. Or something.