I only have time for a quick post today, so how about another quote from Elmer Gantry? Keep in mind that this was published in 1927. See if it sounds familiar:
In some ways he preferred New Thought to standard Protestantism. It was safer to play with. He had never been sure but that there might be something to the doctrines he had preached as an evangelist. Perhaps God really had dictated every word of the Bible. Perhaps there really was a hell of burning sulphur. Perhaps the Holy Ghost really was hovering around watching him and reporting. But he knew with serenity that all of his New Thoughts, his theosophical utterances, were pure and uncontaminated bunk. No one could deny his theories because none of his theories meant anything. It did not matter what he said, so long as he kept them listening; and he enjoyed the buoyancy of power as he bespelled his classes with long, involved, fruity sentences rhapsodic as perfume advertisements.
How agreeable on bright winter afternoons, in the gilt and velvet elegance of the lecture hall, to look at smart women, and moan, “And, oh, my beloved, can you not see, do you not perceive, have not your earth-bound eyes ingathered, the supremacy of the raja's quality which each of us, by that inner contemplation which is the all however cloaked by the seeming, can consummate and build loftily to higher aspiring spheres?”
Yep. Today as then, theology can be divided into two styles: the meaningless and the absurd.
Although a running gag throughout the book is that Elmer Gantry's purple rhetoric is consistently indebted to the Great Infidel, Robert G. Ingersoll...
People are attracted to pretty incantations that almost make sense and almost have definitive form. The nebulousness allows them to draw the conclusions they most like and the effort of the mind in translating word salad to meaning keeps the critical mind occupied and frees the portions that revel in ecstasy, complacent belonging, and warmth. Portions that are normally kept in check by the critical mind.
Chanting, yoga, ecstatic dancing and certain drugs can have a similar effect.
Intriguing. Two non-Christian views of religion, neither of which the author wanted us to believe. It's cute, but why was this book taken so seriously?
Why, Andrew, because people did (do) believe them.
Somewhat related, here's Duke University theologian Stanley Hauerwas, describing Elmer Gantry's descendants:
"American Protestants do not have to believe in God because they believe in belief. That is why we have never been able to produce an interesting atheist in America. The god most Americans say they believe in is just not interesting enough to deny. Thus the only kind of atheism that counts in America is to call into question the proposition that everyone has a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."