Critical Religion Theory

“Power is tolerable only on condition that it mask a substantial part of itself. Its success is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms. -Michel Foucault

”Nothing has been a better visual aid for Critical Race Theory than the hysterical knee jerk reaction of some white people at the prospect of having a light shined on the hidden structures of racism in U.S. law and history.

To my knowledge, the phrase “critical theory” was born in the Frankfurt School as a way of unmasking the power equations hidden in seemingly objective studies like law, history and literature.

The point, as I understand it, was to use humanity as the measure of institutions, not institutions as the measure of human beings. So the “critical” aspect of theory was to measure how social structures worked for the freedom of real human beings, or for their oppression.

I am just realizing that my life’s work has been an attempt to discover a Critical Religion Theory. Instead of using religion as the measure of human beings, religion is to be judged by whether it sets people free, or justifies their oppression. Instead of being an excuse for cultural privilege, religion is to be judged by its service to ALL humanity, or the lack thereof. Instead of being a safe haven for unexamined beliefs, religion should be judged by whether it calls people INTO a shared world or OUT of it.


“Nothing exists for itself alone, but only in relation to other forms of life.”

-Charles Darwin

It has been 60 years since anthropologist Louis Leaky provided funds for three brilliant and brave young women to go live with humanity’s closest remaining primate relatives. Diane Fossey lived with gorillas, Birutė Galdikas with orangutans, and Jane Goodall with chimpanzees. A fourth woman was to be sent to the bonobos, but Leaky died before funding could be raised.Perhaps

Leakey chose women to study these primates because he thought they would be more likely to understand the animals both objectively AND subjectively. Goodall, the granddaughter of an open minded and inclusive Congregationalist minister, was a blend of scientist and nature mystic. She wrote, “For those who have experienced the joy of being alone with nature there is really little need for me to say much more; for those who have not, no words of mine can ever describe the powerful, almost mystical knowledge of beauty and eternity that come, suddenly, and all unexpected.”

Science had already weighed, measured and dissected primates, Leakey wanted these women to reverently LISTEN to our nearest relatives that we might discover who WE are before it is too late. The work of these women was intended to be the best of science AND a very deep reverence for the web of life. In addition to the necessary scientific skills, these women brought intuition as well.

Goodall remembered of her education, “I was also told by these professors to be a good scientist you have to be objective. Therefore you cannot have empathy with what you’re studying. That is so wrong. It’s having empathy with what you’re studying that gives you those “aha” moments — “Yes, I think I know why he or she is doing that.” Then you can put on the scientific hat, which I learned at Cambridge, which I love, and say, “Let me prove that my intuition is right or not.”

When asked what advice she would you give to a 10-year-old wanting to become a scientist, she responded, “I would tell them you mustn’t be cold. You must have empathy. It’s the lack of empathy for subjects that’s led to so much cruelty to animals. Now, we’re even learning how these trees communicate. It’s such a fascinating world to live in. There’s always something new to learn.”

To find meaning within an imaginary world can be tragic. It also seems sad to renounce every feeling of reverence so one can remain scientifically objective. Our deep aspiration as human beings to find meaning requires BOTH a scientific mind and a reverent heart.



I am working on a loving response to someone who has been coming to our church virtually. Almost every week this poor man has sent emails of complaint. He believes our justice stands are “virtue signaling” and our attempts to understand other cultures are examples of “wokeness.”

I have wasted WAY too much time and energy trying to communicate with someone who clearly isn’t even trying to hear another point of view. I know it’s foolish, but there’s something deep in my soul that cannot finally give up on any human being.
It is very hard to communicate with those who speak in cliches. When people spit out jargon words like “woke” for the forbidden world outside their own prejudices, and “virtue signaling” for any benevolence outside their own narrow frame of concern, it becomes clear these poor propagandized people are not actually trying to think at all. They are simply using hypnotic trigger words to protect themselves FROM new ideas that would break their trance.

I’m all for diverse opinions, but racism, sexism and classism are not just opinions, they are justifications for oppression. The problem is, in their entranced state, these poor frightened people imagine themselves brave for collectively bullying the populations targeted for oppression by this culture.

I don’t know how to be honest AND loving. When I’m angry what I WANT to say is:

Dear ___,

Here’s something you don’t seem to know about me- I’m not you.
I am an autonomous agent outside your every context. I’m not on earth to win your approval. I feel no motivation to justify myself to you. In fact, until you can learn to step outside your own context and test your ideas by some objective standard, I might as well be trying to communicate with a pre-recorded message.

I love you as a human being, but I also love the people toward which you are being hateful. If they attack you unfairly, count on me being on your side. Just know, if you attack them unfairly, you can damn well count on my being on theirs.



“Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” -Voltaire

A religion based on mere belief withers before the harsh light of science like a toadstool, but a religion of compassion seeks out the harshest lights of truth that it might love better. Skepticism is a necessary part of compassion. Believers who do not know how to test their beliefs are fed constant propaganda that they might do bidding of demagogues. Carl Sagan’s last book, “Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” can be a helpful for those of us seeking a scientific spirituality. Sagan’s Atheism is particularly illuminating to a spiritual person because his skepticism is not so much a hatred of religion, but a concern for humankind. Here is Sagan’s “Baloney Detection Kit” from that great book:

1. “Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the ‘facts.'”

2. “Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.”

3. “Arguments from authority carry little weight — “authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.”

4. “Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that resists disproof in this Darwinian selection among “multiple working hypotheses,” has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.”

5. “Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.”

6. “Quantify. If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations. Of course there are truths to be sought in the many qualitative issues we are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging.”

7. “If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them.”

8. “Occam’s Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler.”

9. “Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much. Consider the grand idea that our Universe and everything in it is just an elementary particle — an electron, say — in a much bigger Cosmos. But if we can never acquire information from outside our Universe, is not the idea incapable of disproof? You must be able to check assertions out. Inveterate skeptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.”


The Trump years should be a wake up call to all of us, particularly to comfortable white churches. Trump did not create, but revealed cracks in the foundation of much of what makes the church comfortable. Most of us have been citizens of the empire than ambassadors of a new age of loving justice for all. Here are some things I believe American churches can do to be ambassadors for the weak instead of apologists for the strong.

1. Get rid of all images of a white Jesus anywhere on our property.

2. Stop calling God “He.” When we imagine the sacred as male, we unconsciously lift human biological masculinity into the Godhead. The church is a subtle accomplice to the abuse of women when it uses language that empowers men and disempowers women.

3. Stop saying Jesus is the only way. What Jesus was really saying is that radical and universal Love is the only way.

4. Take the flag out of the pulpit area. Patriotism is fine, but healthy faith is a call to serve ALL people equally. And we need to remember that a nation is not great because it is rich or powerful. The prophets taught that a nation is only great if it cares for its people (including its weakest members) and is a good neighbor to the world community.

5. Stop teaching that faith means holding on to untestable beliefs in spite of contradictory evidence. We need to teach instead that faith is radically honest trust in the power of love.

6. Stop teaching versions of atonement that turn God into a vindictive monster. The cross was invented by Rome to punish rebellion not by God to punish human sin. The cross is symbol of our sacred call to be on the side of the weak in dismantling every hierarchy of oppression.

7. Stop equating miracles with violations of nature. If we are going to help save our planet we must see nature as sacred not profane.

8. Stop saying that the church should not be political. The church should not be partisan, it is true, but when Moses went to Pharaoh saying to let the enslaved people go, he was being political. If Moses had obeyed the authorities there would have been no Exodus.

9. Stop pretending we understand God. God is a symbol of the creative mystery of things whatever that is. If we could put that intuition into a clearly stated dogma it wouldn’t be a mystery.

10. Stop making appeals to fear of whatever it is we do not understand. Faith is not belief in what the church has already taught, but trusting that love casts out fear if we follow it into the future.

Won’t it be incredible to wake up someday and not have all the news centered around one man? Won’t it be great someday to be in a democracy mature enough where truth claims are measured by reason and science and not by whether those making the claim agree or disagree with the ruler?


Neither Gandhi nor MLK were perfect, but it is very hard to become wise is we can only learn from perfect people, so today in our Conversations in Living Class we are looking at the actual checklist MLK used for protestors (the part in quotes). I have added my thoughts (the part in brackets.) Feel free to add your thoughts to the conversation. 


“I hereby pledge myself — my person and body — to the nonviolent movement. Therefore I will keep the following ten commandments:”

1. “Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.”

(While this is good advice for Christians, we must now realize that our human family is a rainbow of world views and so each of us must learn a new vocabulary that is universalistic. It is fine for any of us to speak authentically from our own tradition, but we must end the practice of reducing the movement for universal human rights to any one sect. Every noble tradition has a model of gentleness, and so they do not need to convert to Christian vocabulary before they can be members of our movement.) 

2. “Remember always that the nonviolent movement seeks justice and reconciliation — not victory.”

(Gandhi always said that the purpose of resistance is to illumine a principle, not eliminate an opponent.)

3. “Walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love.”

(Again this kind of talk is fine for theists, but non theists have their own images for love. To require others to convert to our image of love is not very loving.)

4. “Pray daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.”

(Not everybody prays. Some contemplate, some meditate, some just think about things. And I’m sure if MLK were alive he would be the first to cast out sexist language now. We are working for all PEOPLE to be free.)

5. “Sacrifice personal wishes in order that all men might be free.”

(I believe we have a duty NOT to surrender our agency even to a good cause, but we must harmonize our will to a greater good.)

6. “Observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.”

(Civility does not mean passivity. This is a checklist for those about to commit civil disobedience. In a time of brutality and lies we must not lose our reason and humanity just because others have lost theirs.) 

7. “Seek to perform regular service for others and for the world.”

8. “Refrain from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.”

(Even if we believe we have a duty to physically protect others from violence, a demonstration is an attempt to communicate and educate. We cannot awaken a frightened propagandized population by trying to scare them.)

9. “Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.”

(Self care is essential for the life of an activist. We mustn’t be violent with ourselves to teach peace to others.)

10. “Follow the directions of the movement and of the captain on a demonstration.”

(Since a demonstration is an effort by organizers to express a message it is helpful for all of us to sing from the same sheet music.)

“I sign this pledge, having seriously considered what I do and with the determination and will to persevere.”

Buffalo Man

I’ve been thinking about the man in the strange buffalo costume who stormed the Capitol last week. As I understand it, the man is called the “QAnon Shaman.”

The strange blend of adulterated Paganism, Christianity and nationalism we have seen in the Trump era also occurred in Nazi Germany. Hitler hated the forms of Judaism and Christianity that insisted on economic justice and human rights, but he would often praise the apolitical form of religion that served as liturgical toady to state power.

The religion of the Nazis consisted of a very motley crew of “Christians” who were willing to hate in service to the state, “Pagans” who would betray nature in service to the state, and “Atheists” who would affirm the superstitious cosmology of the Nazis in service to the state.

How did this meltdown happen? Germany was perhaps the most sophisticated culture of all time, but I wonder if their high culture and philosophy really addressed the deep and often irrational needs of real people. Whereas many of the most brilliant philosophers in Germany completely refuted the metaphysical claims of German religion, perhaps they unwittingly took away a crutch from some people leaving nothing upon which those people felt they could stand.

It is a noble aspiration to be rational and scientific, but when we say people should be COMPLETELY rational, many face a crisis of identity. How can a mammal be completely rational? At our best we can be wonderful logical, but rationality is an aspiration, not a foundation. When the religious and secular elites of the culture discounted this fact, Hitler was all too eager to take advantage of the vacuum of meaning.

I wonder if much of the strange intolerance in our time is not a crisis of identity. I wonder if some of the dread of foreigners, of myth melting science and even of wearing COVID masks that cover their faces is coming from a people who have lost the sense of who they are. I suspect many feel as if they are thrashing and drowning in the commons.

Nature religions are very good at helping people find their identity in nature and the cosmos. Puberty rights may seem silly, but without some kind of coming of age ritual. many young people may not ever come to feel they have arrived as adults. Some young people may mistake tattoos, or smoking, or getting pregnant as a way to affirm they have arrived into adulthood. But some people may join a group like Q-Anon that gives them an identity and a powerful (though vicious) narrative of meaning.

Perhaps the reason people are clutching flags and ridiculous conspiracy theories is in an attempt to hold up the shards of a broken mirror that once told them who they were.

When the religions of a culture do not answer the question, “Who am I in the cosmos,” and when many secular thinkers dismiss the question as superstition, we should not be surprised when someone like Donald Trump or a “QAnon Shaman” answers the question for them.

Do Not Despair!

I have a question for you. If you found a time machine and could go back either to the gala victory celebration on the night of Ronald Reagan’s election, or you could go back to sit with Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King on the night of their worst defeat, which would you choose?

I ask that question because I believe most of us would choose a life of dignified suffering rather than one of personal success that served no higher purpose. We all die and so the most important question we can ask ourselves is for what value will we spend our days?

In some ways, the worse times get, the greater our opportunity to do the things that really matter. In this time when some seek to dominate our streets, we have an historic opportunity to work for human liberation. In this time of sickness, we have an historic opportunity to work for universal health care. In this time of brutality and lies, we have an opportunity to express our highest values through those very problems.

For example, there are still brave souls working for some of the issues Martin Luther King died for. “The Poor Peoples Campaign” is a living breathing embodiment of the historic struggle for human dignity in America. If you are looking for a way to get involved, go to their website and explore. But there are also so many wonderful movements right now that could use your help. Instead of choosing despair, why not think about a cause you most care about and find kindred spirits who are doing the work you would find most valuable?

There is a saying that the life of activism only gives two rewards: loving friends and living dreams. It seems to me these are perhaps the greatest treasures of the human heart. Why choose to spend our brief days in despair when, in this dangerous time, we can choose to unleash our souls’ greatness instead?

Clergy Rising

For the first time in my life, I Googled the word “clergy” and found a majority of the news items were about clergy speaking in resistance to the injustices of our day.

When I was first ordained it was quickly apparent people wanted me to say blessings over the status quo, but not to talk about seeking a fairer world. I could tell that, as clergy, we have to choose between being chaplains to the status quo or prophetic voices for a better world.

There have always been prophetic voices coming from religious leaders, but words cannot express the joy and relief of reading so MANY clergy friends on Facebook who are risking their denominational relationships in order to line up behind Black Lives Matter.

The Pflugerville clergy had an online prayer gathering the other night where we white clergy listened to our Black colleagues calling for us to go beyond our easy prayers and enter into their struggle for liberation.

Last night our Presbytery had a prayer gathering where our General Presbyter Sallie Sampsell Watson broke down reading the names of Black lives lost to police violence. One could feel everyone speaking last night had cast their fate with those on the margins seeking justice.

Episcopal and Catholic clergy are speaking with a moral clarity I don’t remembering hearing in these numbers. Here in Austin, Methodist minister John Elford reports that one of our local Imams, the noble Sheikh Islam Mossaad, took the unbelievably brave stand of refusing to serve as chaplain for the police department so he could clearly be seen to be on the side of the vulnerable and oppressed.

How ironic would it be if the presidency of Donald Trump resulted in transforming clergy from officiants of the capitalist culture to one unified prophetic voice on behalf of all humankind?