Monday, April 13, 2009

Shamans Get More Votes In Blue Oblasts

Thanks to Zaphod (real name) for this link about Russia's first shaman election. Really. After you read it, ask yourself: where do you go for file photos on shamans?

Also ask yourself where to begin ennumerating the problems with such an election, least among them that the candidates list their kettle collections as a reason to select them. But this is a perfect example of the problem of church-state intermingling. Russia has found it challenging to maintain any semblance of democracy, and Vladimir Putin, not known for his democratic tendencies, had moved Russia back toward its good old czarist days in several important steps before fading into the background behind Dmitri Medvedev. One such step was reappointing the Orthodox Church as the official church of Russia, leading Christopher Hitchens to state that "we will live to regret the conversion of Russia into a heavily-armed, self-pitying, chauvinistic theocracy".

Indeed, it seems odd that the same government that just readopted the Czar's church would now also be picking official shamans. Of course, it's more about using organized religion as a political tool, and taming minority religions; once the state has given itself the power to legitimize religious leaders, that religion becomes a state organ. China has attempted exactly the same trick in Tibet. The Chinese government sees no conflict (or human-rights incursion) with simultaneously choosing an official Lama to reign in Tibetan Buddhism (the Panchen Lama) and giving out an annual atheist award. This is where we have to be clear about what a secular government is - it's one which does not take a positive position on the validity of any religion, or on their lack thereof. This is exactly why I find the atheist award just as creepy as the official CCP-designated Lama.

How do these intrigues of the Orient affect American atheists? Simple. They provide a powerful argument for separation of church and state that we can use with religious conservatives. There are many pro-separation Christians who understand this point clearly. Middle Eastern theocracies are a good place to start, but in Russia and China we have places notorious in the U.S. more for their lack of democratic values. They're a great jumping-off point for asking people whether they really want their values and faith being dictated by a worldly government if these are the consequences. In the modern world, the church in question usually becomes a pet of the state. It reminds me of a bumper sticker I saw in the wake of the David Koresh-Branch Davidian incident in Waco: is YOUR church ATF-approved?

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