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This Side of Paradise

Opinion | November 13, 2012

Native American and colonial religious history can offer America’s modern political and cultural ills some indispensible remedies. The culture of some American tribes, such as the Cherokee, frames life less as a dogged pursuit of happiness and more as a spiritual quest for natural harmony. On the other hand, a strict, fearful, and widespread religious following allowed many 17th and 18th century Puritans to commit inconceivable atrocities against many indigenous tribes. A similar mentality is too frequently incorporated in an American cultural and political structure that often fails to put religion aside when developing policies. Ultimately, by reflecting on this nation’s cultural past, parsing the importance of religion on our global outlook, and valuing verifiable truths, we could conceive a more rational perspective both culturally and politically.

Translated Cherokee scriptures mention that they “do not know” who created the earth and all its beings. This lack of centralized theistic focus highlights a fundamental difference between the two groups’ worldviews. Without fear of wrathful divine punishment, the Cherokee perspective focuses more on natural harmony within the world. For instance, “How The World Was Made”, the Cherokee story of origin, demonstrates a belief that the Upper, Middle, and Underworlds interact with each other in an attempt to reach inter-global harmony. Humans must work to help maintain harmony within these realms by preventing war, sickness, bad crop seasons, and other disasters on earth. Even a single individual could disturb the balance by not respecting his or her natural environment. Others—including humans, animals, and the earth—could suffer the consequences of harmful actions. In this altruistic value system, there is no outlying paradise, such as heaven, and no single omnipotent being: their heaven is the earth. This mentality, empty of an abstract and obscure utopia, affirms the importance of existence on earth instead of overvaluing a distant heaven. This mentality also encourages a keen respect for nature. By adopting similar viewpoints to the Cherokee, we may be able to foster a better appreciation for our earth and take action to reduce our carbon footprint.

Conversely, radical Puritanism often encouraged a highly self-concerned and fearful attitude, which prevented both rationality and an understanding of unfamiliar cultures. In the Puritan interpretation of their scripture, God predetermined the individuals sent to heaven. Nobody was guaranteed salvation; if anyone sinned they were doomed to hell. If one stringently followed Puritan values, he or she may have reached spiritual peace and, in the afterlife, God’s heaven. However, God still chose their spiritual fate, which they would be unaware of it until after death. In his 1741 sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” a fervent Jonathan Edwards shouted that God’s unselected and wicked men naïvely “walk over the pit of hell on a rotten covering.” He described a wrathful God, demonstrating the Puritan obsession with eternal salvation. This attitude framed life as more of a burden than a blessing, focusing on fear at the expense of rationality.

Many Americans today fall victim to a very similar mentality of failing to value scientific truths, with some politicians attempting to pass their desired policies—often founded on their personal religious beliefs—through ignorant and inflammatory means. Take for instance Missouri Representative Todd Akin, whose recent comments about the biology behind the rape of women have stirred much controversy. Akin claims that the female reproductive system can somehow detect instances of “legitimate rape” and thereby prevent unwanted pregnancies. How is that, after so much effort to redefine rape, Americans still cannot fully comprehend and agree on the realities of this crime? The policy advocated by Akin and his fellow anti-abortion proponents is much inspired by conservative evangelical followings. Unfortunately, Akin demonstrates how this nation is often slow to consent to policies based on scientific, logical methods. Moreover, this shows that our politics can be corrupted by a power dynamic that is willing to ignore moral wrongdoings.

At any rate, the Puritans’ case was much more severe. Their delusional mentalities might explain many brutal massacres, such as that of the Pequot War of 1637, when colonists massacred several hundred Native Americans. The battle mostly erupted due to disputes regarding land and crops. While these arguments fueled the violence, they do not explain the widespread colonial belief that this violence was ethically acceptable. Puritan Captain John Mason, who led the battle, declared that the colonists had a “divine justification” for their murders. Anything challenging God’s agenda seemed inferior to these radical Puritans. Thus, the unawareness of the appalling harm that they caused the Native Americans most likely stemmed from the Puritans’ inclination to follow God’s rigid and daunting agenda—without question. This agenda frequently promoted a widespread following and a cold disrespect of different cultures and value systems.

Some Americans may have no problem deeming the Puritans wildly ignorant. At the same time, however, many modern Americans fail to understand foreign and unfamiliar cultures. For instance, it is easy for us to perceive Iran as a threat because we often associate this nation with strong feelings of fear. Similarly, former President George W. Bush frequently used the term “axis of evil” when referring to “threatening” nations. This type of discourse often exaggerates the realities of what we perceive as harmful. Yes, many of these “evil” nations did—and still do—commit horrible atrocities to their people. By using vague and loaded terms like “evil,” we promote an unintelligent and narrow understanding of what is truly a direct threat and what is inflated. While this frightening terminology is not based on religious text, as it was with Edwards and his Puritan followers, it still heightens our emotional fears instead of endorsing reason.

Why not learn from the Cherokee mentality and the Puritan fear and break the cycle of senselessness? We could stand to appreciate nature, understand foreign cultures, and develop less irrational political goals. We must affirm what exists before us. Fortunately, some evangelicals are beginning to do so by promoting an environmental movement that is based on their theology. They argue that humans ought to work to protect and save the earth that God worked to create. While still focused on religion, this is an excellent step in developing moral and spiritual sentiments that value rationality. This also proves that some interpretations of religion can be very constructive. At any rate, perhaps it is too much to ask this nation to drop its widespread value of religious hindrances. Maybe many Americans will always depend on religion to explain the phenomena of our existence. However, we must recognize that an unquestioning and concentrated focus on religion commonly comes at the price of reason.