Monthly Archives: June 2009

Phrases to avoid if you’re trying to scare me into your religion

“The wrath of the lamb”

Somehow, that just doesn’t do it for me.  When I think of lambs, I think of white, puffy creatures who’re afraid of their own shadows and who star in kiddie shows.  “Wrath” and “lamb” seem about as related as “vengeance” and “Teletubby”.  The phrase pretty much obliterates the entire point you’re trying to make because I’m too busy laughing to hear it!

By now, you’re probably wondering, where the hell I got this from.  It was taken from the following video, about 1:05 in.  Admittedly, the preacher mostly says “the wrath of God.”  At least, heavy editing makes it appear that’s what he mostly says.  And if the editing wasn’t enough, a dark, foreboding track – Lord Sauron’s theme from The Lord of the Rings perhaps? – further emphasizes the punishment to come.  Really, you can’t make this stuff up (not even you, Dave Barry!).

Anyway, it’s good to see the old-fashioned, fire-and-brimstone sermon hasn’t gone completely out of style, if only to punctuate how bizarre and, well, medieval, is this aspect of religion.  But it got me thinking to what extent beliefs in some terrifying, eternal suffering in the afterlife have played in a religion’s relative success. After all, two of the world’s largest religions – Christianity and Islam – both share among the most merciless and boundless conceptions of divine punishment.  With those two religions, as the rewards in heaven for belief are supremely enticing (mansions, in the case of Christianity; female virgins, in the case of Islam), are the tortures in hell for disbelief stupefyingly horrific.  While some form of reward and punishment in the afterlife didn’t originate with Christianity and Islam, they are pretty unique in positing such an extreme variance in the two possible spiritual existences.  Yes, I realize that – at least for Christianity – most teaching on the subject of hell has moderated somewhat, the video above notwithstanding, it’s also true that this is a historically recent development.

It may be a mistake to assume that religious threats constitute a way to reel in new members.  From an outsider’s perspective, I’m possibly going to offend someone’s god regardless of which religion I choose. It’s like a game of roulette, except the wheel contains not 38 slots (or “pockets”) but thousands.  Good luck with that bet!  More likely, as is the case with apologetics, the aim is to keep the sheep from leaving the fold.  Our good preacher suggests just as much when he warns that even some members of his audience will not be immune from the main mutton’s mania.  As for myself, I’m going to try to get ahead of the game by pouring out my wrath on a plate of lamb kabob.

Religulous

I finally watched Bill Maher’s film Religulous the other night, which came out in early October of last year.  What took me so long?  I was uncomfortable with Maher’s admitted deception in obtaining the interviews for his film, which was akin to Ben Stein’s practice in producing Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.  But while Stein presented his film as a sober documentary investigation, Maher’s work took itself far less seriously, a sort of mockumentary, along the lines of Sasha Cohen’s Borat, though underlying Religulous is a fundamental point about religion.  Nonetheless, the film should be imbibed with a grain of salt.  I got the sense that clever film editing created the many “stupefied reactions” so common among the film’s pious believers.

Maher’s aim is to expose the ridiculous beliefs underlying today’s religions (thus the film title).  He doesn’t focus on any single religion, a tactic that won’t necessarily broaden the film’s appeal, but it does strengthen his case tenfold.  Sure, everyone knows that the notion of a man flying up to heaven on a winged stallion is laughable on its face, but a man born of the union between a virgin woman and a deity really happened? Ok, right… You gotta hand it to Maher for studiously maintaining an easy joviality with his interviewees, upon whom it probably eventually dawns that Maher is not exactly friendly to their cause.  I myself would stand flabbergasted at some of the stuff coming out these theists’ mouths, but Maher rolls with it in a completely disarming way, by supposing, it seemed, at least a little incredulity within his companion.

Two observations about the faithful from the film are readily apparent.  The first is the shallowness of their beliefs.  Many know the basic theological tenets, but it’s obvious they haven’t reasoned them out very well, a fact Maher exploits to their detriment (and the audience’s amusement).  The second is how far believers go in rationalizing obvious contradictions between their faith and reality.  The Muslims, for example, all unfailingly ascribe Islamic violence to “politics,” somewhat akin to how many Christians blame Christian hatred and violence on “deviations” from Jesus’s teachings (as if Christ never said “Thou shall not suffer a witch to live,” for example).

While for most of the film I bounced between laughing and crying, there were a couple moments that offered hope.  One involved a retired Catholic priest who cheerfully dismissed fundamental Christian doctrines, such as the existence of hell.  This reminded me of one of my biggest complaints about theists, the fact that few of them entertain virtually no doubt about their beliefs.  This is the scourge of dogma, which is certainly not peculiar to religion, but which undoubtedly provided its main historical impetus.

 At both the film’s start and end, Maher describes his animating concern, one shared by Sam Harris in The End of Faith.  That is, in an age when humanity’s capabilities for destroying the planet grow practically by the day, faith-based, dogmatic belief is rapidly becoming a dangerous liability.  Fatalism underlies too much of today’s religion, sapping our collective need to act, and increasing our proclivity for conflict.  Watch Religulous for good entertainment, but keep in mind that the subject is ultimately no laughing matter.

Update: Valerie Tarico at Debunking Christianity just posted an illuminating article on knowing and certainty that segueways nicely with my objection to dogmatic religious belief.  The money quote: “As scientists learn more about how our brains work, certitude is coming to be seen as a vice rather than a virtue. Certainty is a confession of ignorance about our ability to be passionately mistaken.”

Absolute morality and the Tiller murder

Kudos to B.T. Murtagh at the quarkscrew blog for this excellent framing of George Tiller’s murder within theistic absolute morality.  The money quote:

If your notion of absolute moral values is that you absolutely follow someone else’s decisions as to what is moral, or worse yet someone else’s unsupported claim as to what a third party has decided is moral, then your only absolute moral decision is an abdication of moral responsibility.

His deconstruction of the moral implications of God’s order to Abraham to kill Isaac is simply top-notch.  Well worth a read.

My question to theists: what if it emerges that Tiller’s murderer, Scott Roeder, claims that God commanded him to kill Tiller?  By your own belief, Roeder should be exalted and praised, should he not?