Religion and the U.S. Mortgage Crisis

May 26, 2008 at 11:17 am 13 comments

One of my weekly pleasures is an NPR program called This American Life. I download the podcast and take it on a walk or bike ride where I can enjoy it uninterrupted.

In a recent program, the staff of TAL coordinated with NPR’s news division to produce an hour long, behind-the-scenes feature on the recent U.S. sub-prime mortgage crisis. I highly recommend this fascinating program, which answers questions on the hows and whys of the mortgage implosion of 2007-2008.

What the show uncovered was at once both surprising and not. It was surprising in terms of the brazen greed, sloppy assumptions and barely disguised fraud the program uncovered. And yet it was not surprising: Isn’t that trio – greed, laziness and fraud – at the heart of all scams?

As I listened to this sordid tale, spun out in the words of a bartender-turned-mortgage-broker and a mortgage “bundler” who made $75,000 to $100,000 a month (a month), I found my thoughts turning to religion.

Now, hold on just a minute. As a born-again Christian for 30 years, I don’t believe that religion is primarily driven by greed, laziness and fraud. I know that the televangelist stereotype that some lifelong atheists adopt for all religious people is false. I’m well aware that most religious believers are sincere, good-hearted and many are self-sacrificing.

However, there were certain parallels between the mortgage crisis and religion that intrigued me. The first was a retreat into an impenetrable thicket of jargon. Did anybody really, truly understand all the fast talk, statistics and lingo thrown around the mortgage industry during the years when the U.S. housing market was considered invulnerable? Similarly, can anyone lacking a Ph.D. in philosophy muddle through the high-falutin’ verbiage of sophisticated, postmodern theology?

The second parallel I noted was willful ignorance. People who had been in the industry for years knew darn well that NINA (“no income, no asset”) loans were junk. Heck, people who never went near the mortgage industry could tell you that much. But “everybody” was writing NINA loans and happily making money hand over fist. Those who dared raise objections were derided as nay-sayers and ridiculed for missing out on the windfall. Similarly, it seems like “everybody” believes in some kind of god, and also values faith as the highest virtue. Religious believers are suspicious and critical of those of us who cast a skeptical eye on their faith.

Finally, I found another common point in the over-reliance on assumption and authority. The U.S. housing market was a “sure thing,” the story went. The statistics (later found to be outdated and irrelevant) were rock solid. No one seemed to have learned anything from the bubble-and-burst cycle of overvalued American technology stocks less than a decade ago. Similarly, conservative Christians start from the assumption that god exists and wrote the bible through divine inspiration of the holy spirit. Liberal believers can point all day to gurus, books and dissertations, but can’t seem to summarize their own beliefs in a few simple paragraphs.

What did I conclude from this odd confluence of ideas? Mainly that I’m glad to be a skeptic. I don’t care if I’m missing a god gene or I’m derided by religious people for being “cold-hearted” or “uber-logical.” They don’t know that I’m a romantic, emotional woman working in a creative field, so they can’t know that their assumptions are way off base.

Besides that, experience has taught me that questioning, probing and holding out for objective proof is the best way to avoid wrack and ruin in life. And believe me, I’ve seen lots of wrack and ruin in the lives of friends and relatives who value faith as the highest virtue, lean on authority instead of thinking for themselves, and are all-too-eager to believe.

If you develop the mental muscle to consistently cut through jargon, insist that people explain what they mean in plain English, examine assumptions, scrutinize motivations and question authority, you become inoculated against falling for the “next big thing” – whether it’s an investment or a religious belief.

- Karen

Entry filed under: Karen. Tags: , , , , .

Why d-C? – Answer the damn question Mr. Priest! Why d-C? – Logical Problems with the Dogma

13 Comments Add your own

  • 1. LeoPardus  |  May 26, 2008 at 8:09 pm

    Hmmm….. so you’re sayin”””””””” that people tend to stumble forward with their eyes and ears shut, and just hope for the best? And….. that they don’t learn from the past? This could be a publication in a major journal and above the banner headlines in major newspapers. But then everyone would forget it all in about 3-4 months when it gets knocked off the radar by Miley Cyrus’ Playboy spread.

  • 2. James McGrath  |  May 27, 2008 at 9:31 am

    I’m intrigued that you linked to a post of mine as an example not only of theological jargon, but of a distinctly postmodern sort! Perhaps I’ve moved on from a modern to a postmodern perspective more than I’ve realized, but since the discussion was mostly about the language Paul Tillich introduced into theology, I wonder how much of the issue specifically relates to postmodernism.

    Anyway, I would have thought that my post with advice for those buying a used religion would have been more a propos in the present context: http://exploringourmatrix.blogspot.com/2008/04/this-is-repost-of-something-i-wrote-on.html

  • 3. heatlight  |  May 27, 2008 at 10:46 am

    Man – those same lists of characteristics also remind me of the general populations approach towards most things ‘scientific’, and even scientists in one fields acceptance of the popular theories within another. Hello Dawkins! ;-)

  • 4. LeoPardus  |  May 27, 2008 at 11:10 am

    James McGrath:

    Looked at the post you linked. Like it. Especially loved the bits you put in there from Sagan’s book. I just may go out and read a Sagan book or two for fun.

    The bits from Carl Sagan’s book “The Varieties of Scientific Experience”, for those who haven’t followed the link:

    Thomas Paine made an argument that is as powerful today as ever: “We have never seen, in our time, nature go out of her course. But we have good reason to believe that millions of lies have been told in the same time. It is therefore at least millions to one that the reporter of a miracle tells a lie”

    According to the Bible, God gave great and undoubtable signs – parting seas, fire from heaven, and so on. Yet Sagan asks the pertinent question: “why should God be so clear in the Bible and so obscure in the world?”

    Just great James.

  • 5. karen  |  May 27, 2008 at 4:02 pm

    Hmmm….. so you’re sayin”””””””” that people tend to stumble forward with their eyes and ears shut, and just hope for the best? And….. that they don’t learn from the past?

    Yes, hard to believe, isn’t it? I was thinking of the myriad blatant scams that specifically target Christians by using Christian-eze wording, appeals to scripture and “you can trust me – I’m a brother in the lord!” testimonials. It’s sad, but I’ve seen a ton of religious people (including several relatives) get taken by this tactic, and not just once but several times. Sigh.

    This could be a publication in a major journal and above the banner headlines in major newspapers. But then everyone would forget it all in about 3-4 months when it gets knocked off the radar by Miley Cyrus’ Playboy spread.

    Tee, hee … all too true, Leo!

    I’m intrigued that you linked to a post of mine as an example not only of theological jargon, but of a distinctly postmodern sort! Perhaps I’ve moved on from a modern to a postmodern perspective more than I’ve realized, but since the discussion was mostly about the language Paul Tillich introduced into theology, I wonder how much of the issue specifically relates to postmodernism.

    I used that link because it was the most recent in a series of (failed) attempts I’ve made to read and understand “sophisticated theology.” If it’s not postmodern, I apologize for mischaracterizing it.

    However, that mistake only illustrates my point further: The jargon runs so thick that I can’t tell the difference between theological writing that is liberal, postmodern, New Age, etc.

    And lest you assume that I’m a rube unable to wrap my neurons around truly complex material, let me say that I make my living as a writer and editor who specializes in turning complicated information into readable text for non-specialists.

    Great ideas can be crystallized into digestible prose that doesn’t take a doctorate to follow. In artistic terms think of wonderful poetry. In religious terms think: “I believe in god the father, almighty, maker of heaven and earth … ” or “The chief end of man is to glorify god and enjoy him forever.”

    In atheist terms, check out the writing of Sam Harris, or the blogger Ebonmuse. The clarity and persuasiveness of their prose is beautiful stuff, as is the inspiration of astronomy blogger Phil Plait talking about the Phoenix landing photo snapped from space.

  • 6. Larry Who  |  May 27, 2008 at 4:14 pm

    Karen wrote: “As a born-again Christian for 30 years”…

    I would like you to cut through the jargon and explain in plain English, how you can de-convert yourself from being born again? Or would you rather call it, being un-born again?

    Just trying to consider all the possible reversals that would have to take place for you to possibly be un-born again is mind blowing. It would entail Jesus going back to the cross and somehow reversing every prophecy and work of the Father at the cross. Cannot be done!

    So, I have good news for you. (Oops – maybe bad news in your case.) You can’t get un-born again. Ever. Now, eventually this will be good news!

  • 7. LeoPardus  |  May 27, 2008 at 4:19 pm

    Larry:

    Please unzip your fly so you can see the world around you.

  • 8. karen  |  May 28, 2008 at 4:32 pm

    I would like you to cut through the jargon and explain in plain English, how you can de-convert yourself from being born again? Or would you rather call it, being un-born again?

    Just trying to consider all the possible reversals that would have to take place for you to possibly be un-born again is mind blowing. It would entail Jesus going back to the cross and somehow reversing every prophecy and work of the Father at the cross. Cannot be done!

    How about sending Superman into outer space and having him spin the earth backwards for a while – would that work? Seriously, that idea makes about as much sense as what you’re proposing above.

    Let’s simplify things: I once believed in Christianity, accepted Jesus as my savior, prayed, studied the bible, attended church regularly, etc. My behavior was all predicated on my sincere belief.

    Then, I re-evaluated my belief, realized Christianity and theism in general was not true, and my behavior changed accordingly. That’s not too tough to follow, right?

    So, I have good news for you. (Oops – maybe bad news in your case.) You can’t get un-born again. Ever. Now, eventually this will be good news!

    Well hallelujah! I love it when Christians proclaim that I’m still “saved” and not in danger of hell. It makes me feel so much better. (Not.)

  • 9. Larry Who  |  May 29, 2008 at 12:15 pm

    Karen,

    Not only are you still saved, but the Lord has not removed the calling of evangelist which He placed on your heart years ago. Do you still remember how your heart yearned to do His will? Do you remember the promises you made to Him?

    Well hallelujah! Say goodbye to the other muckrakers, because the Lord has not forgotten and is coming back to remove you from the pit you have fallen into.

    Then, you can write the books that He wants you to write. Not this fairy tale stuff.

  • 10. HeIsSailing  |  May 29, 2008 at 1:08 pm

    Larry Who snaps Karen back to reality:
    “…Then, you can write the books that He wants you to write. Not this fairy tale stuff.”

    Wow. Just.. wow. The irony.. .. I wanted to write a response here.. but I am at a loss for words… ….I am absolutely speechless.

  • 11. Cthulhu  |  May 29, 2008 at 2:54 pm

    So, I have good news for you. (Oops – maybe bad news in your case.) You can’t get un-born again. Ever. Now, eventually this will be good news!

    Karen – just humor him and blaspheme the holy moly – uh – spirit and maybe Larry will get it (but I have grave doubts).

  • 12. karen  |  May 29, 2008 at 5:32 pm

    Well hallelujah! Say goodbye to the other muckrakers, because the Lord has not forgotten and is coming back to remove you from the pit you have fallen into.

    Larry, I’m sure glad that god has favored you, out of all the billions on the planet, to reveal his plans for me – someone you don’t know from a hole in the ground. ;-)

    Karen – just humor him and blaspheme the holy moly – uh – spirit and maybe Larry will get it (but I have grave doubts).

    Cthulhu, I actually did that (blasphemed) after watching Brian Flemming do the same in “The God Who Wasn’t There.” I was very relieved that lightening didn’t strike me down! (seriously…)

  • 13. Julian Rodriguez  |  June 2, 2008 at 3:54 pm

    So, am I wrong in becoming a scientologist? :P

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Attention Christian Readers

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Whether or not you believe in God, you should live your life with love, kindness, compassion, mercy and tolerance while trying to make the world a better place. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will have made a positive impact on those around you. If there is a benevolent God reviewing your life, you will be judged on your actions and not just on your ability to blindly believe in creeds- when there is a significant lack of evidence on how to define God or if he/she even exists.

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