Thursday, December 20, 2012

Jesus Haploid Christ

Let's start today by making clear one crucial thing: I admire Penn Jillette. You should know the name already; if you don't, he's the talkative half of Penn & Teller. (Teller's going to be left alone here. After all, Teller doesn't talk.) He's very smart, very analytical, and all too willing to not only call out liars and fakers but show you the tricks they use to do so, all as part of an ongoing quest to encourage you to not take everything you hear at face value. Worthy attributes, all.

That having been said, today we're here to talk religion.

Penn is a longtime atheist, and as of late, this aspect of himself is what he's been playing up. In 2011, he wrote a book entitled God, No!, and a sequel this year called Every Day is an Athiest Holiday!. And this year he launched 'Penn's Sunday School', a weekly podcast where, although other issues of the week are discussed, the chief topic is religion. And Penn is not shy- he never is- in attacking the very idea of religion. Some of his quotes on the topic can be found here and here; we'll be using a few of those quotes momentarily. Although there are other aspects of his viewpoint- the aforementioned picking apart of what he considers lies; the resultant need to value life right now as opposed to waiting for greater rewards later and to treat people right the first time because there's no greater being to forgive your sins- probably the most succinct sum-up of his proselytizing is this:

“What I have a problem with is not so much religion or god, but faith. When you say you believe something in your heart and therefore you can act on it, you have completely justified the 9/11 bombers. You have justified Charlie Manson. If it's true for you, why isn't it true for them? Why are you different? If you say "I believe there's an all-powerful force of love in the universe that connects us all, and I have no evidence of that but I believe it in my heart," then it's perfectly okay to believe in your heart that Sharon Tate deserves to die. It's perfectly okay to believe in your heart that you need to fly planes into buildings for Allah.”

Let us first establish that I disagree strongly with Penn's assertion. You will quite often hear the phrase 'This person claims to be a Christian', for instance, when a particularly abhorrent person such as Fred Phelps or Pat Robertson says or does some jaw-droppingly offensive thing in the name of Christianity. I presume that similar sentiments hold for other faiths as well. A person can absolutely hold a faith and cringe at those who twist it to mean some terrible, hateful thing. That said, the general idea is that the faith of religion makes people do crazy, violent things, and that the downsides of that aren't worth it.

Let's start here.

You see, Penn- if someone ever happens to run this piece by you; maybe me, I'll have to see how I feel about it after I'm done- I was raised Lutheran. Whatever may have happened to found Lutheranism hundreds of years ago in Germany, here, now, it is decidedly not one of your more outspoken branches of Christianity, like the Roman Catholics or the Southern Baptists. It's really rather laid-back, at least from my experience: you go in, sit in a pew for about an hour, awkwardly try to follow along in the hymnal 3-5 times over the course of the hour, listen to a sermon that will probably last about 10-15 minutes, and you get all your sins forgiven at some point during the process, no questions asked. There are baked goods at the end of it. Now let's all go home and watch some football. With that kind of religious upbringing, I was never going to get overly loud about it.

Over time, I've taken to adopt an even more laid-back belief: that being, I really don't give a darn. I don't care what you believe, how you believe, or if you believe, so long as whatever you believe makes a decent human being out of you. I may have said those words here before; well, here I am saying them again.

As ugly as some people can be made by the power of religion, as horrifying as the ends are that they will go to in order to further those beliefs... there are also people who use that power for much more constructive and peaceful purposes, in fact quite beautiful purposes. Osama bin Laden was deeply religious, but then, so was Gandhi. Fred Phelps is deeply religious- or at least he claims to be- but then, so is the Dalai Lama, who's so peaceful that he will give mosquitos multiple warning shots to give them a chance to fly away safely. Religion need not be a bludgeon to be used against other religions. We're all sharing the same earth and we've got to get along with each other.

More than that, some people need religion. Even if it's not the correct answer- and whether it is or not I will not be discussing today because to me it isn't the issue at hand- there are people who don't so much need the higher being as much as they need the moral center provided by one.

You remember when the human genome got cracked? Ever since then, scientists have been checking out different genes within the genome and trying to figure out what each one does and who among us has what. In a report for National Geographic Explorer, Henry Rollins looked into one such gene, dubbed the 'warrior' gene. The episode can be viewed here. The warrior gene, which causes people to be prone to higher levels of aggression and anger, was tested for amongst a variety of people, including five MMA fighters, three Buddhist monks, and Rollins himself. Of those people, while Rollins did not carry the gene, nor did any of the MMA fighters, all the monks did. The monks had previously stated that two of them had been bullied in school, and the third had grown up in wartorn Vietnam. With a genetic predisposition towards aggression, it's very possible that devout Buddhism was needed to curb any possible urges to go down violent paths.

And beyond genetics, well, people behave better when they think someone's watching. You know the old chestnut, 'the boss is coming, look busy'. If a boss is always watching, no matter what, one is less likely to misbehave. And as much as faith has led to extreme, violent ends... atheism isn't exactly clean itself. Some nations have made atheism the official state religion over the years, most notably Communist nations such as China, North Korea, and the Soviet Union. You probably know just from that lineup where we're heading with this: with the state removing religion as an institution, the state itself effectively becomes the religion. The Soviet Union persecuted religious belief with Lenin quoting Karl Marx and Stalin sending dissidents to Siberia; North Korea has clamped down on religion just as they've clamped down on everything else (they've implemented 'juche' as a substitute, which boils down to 'nobody's coming to help you; every man for himself', a school of thought that it shouldn't be surprising that North Korea would implement), and China attacked all things religious as part of the decade-long angry mob that was the Cultural Revolution. It may not be a spectacular explosion of violence- well, the Cultural Revolution was- but grim, grey, industrial-scale death in the name of lack of religion is death in the name of religion all the same.

But Penn would probably bristle at that. He once said:

“Atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby.”

No. Atheism is technically not a religion. However, atheism takes as much of an active role in religious discussion as any actual religion, enough so that atheism is effectively treated like everybody else. Jon Stewart is subject to a similar characterization in the realm of journalism: technically, he is a fake journalist, but he spends so much time critiquing journalists, analyzing stories, interviewing substantive newsmakers, and informing the public about some really rather horrifying stuff that they otherwise would not have gotten somewhere else, that despite any protestations from Stewart about how he's not a real journalist, he is treated as one. In fact, he's treated as a damn good one.

In both cases, if you act enough like what you claim you're not, you're going to be treated as what you claim not to be anyway. And on page 62 of God, No!, Penn writes:

"Atheists are also morally obligated to tell the truth as we see it. We should preach and proselytize too. We need to help believers. Someone who believes in god is wasting big parts of his or her life, holding back science and love, and giving "moral" support to dangerous extremists. If you believe something, you must share it; it's one of the ways we all learn about truth."

Preaching and proselytizing. You cannot have your cake and eat it too. You can't go preaching about your lack of religion and then turn around and say you can't be held to the same rules and standards as everybody else because atheism isn't a religion. Again, if you act like a religion, you're going to be treated like one. And as such, atheists are subject to the same general characterization as everyone else. For example, Buddhists, as we've established, have the characterization of being intensely peaceful. The Shintos aren't too far behind. The Baptists are characterized as rather fiery in their rhetoric. The Scientologists are characterized as crazies and contestants on Celebrity Pyramid Scheme.

And the atheists have a characterization, too: as loud, brash jerks who, while intelligent, constantly tell people that everything is a bunch of BS. While there are plenty of perfectly pleasant atheists out there- Mythbusters Adam, Jamie and Kari, for example, as well as David Suzuki, Ron Reagan, Matt Smith, Bjork- the archetype runs much more along the lines of George Carlin, Jesse Ventura, Julian Assange, Bill Maher, Andy Rooney...

...and Penn Jillette. Really kind of the elephant in the room, that. Penn is really a nice enough guy, but one look at his on-camera persona and the support given to it by his outspokenness and you can't really get away from it.

And that characterization ties into the moral-center point raised earlier. Some people need religion as a governing force in their life, a way to help them make themselves better people. Whether the religion is correct or not, I personally am loathe to remove that governing force from places where it isn't hurting anything. If someone needs religion to center themselves, and it is removed, all you have done is create a moral vacuum in this person, and quite possibly given them license to become a complete and total jerk to people on the grounds that it doesn't matter in the end anyway. Potentially, they may be driven to 'preach' the wonders of casting aside religion to others, perhaps quite forcefully. After all, Karl Marx was an atheist. Che Guevara was an atheist. Joseph Stalin was an atheist. Slobodan Milosevic was an atheist. Enver Hoxha was an atheist. (Checking around, the two major counterpoints to this particular argument by atheists, at least from what I'm seeing looking around, is that it isn't relevant or that at least some of them actually were not atheist. To which I say: when atheism is what you're telling the masses to adopt, yes, it absolutely matters; and come on, nut up and own them. The followers of all the other beliefs at least go 'this horrible person CLAIMS to be one of ours/does not speak for the rest of us'. You can do likewise. I gave you the nice people; I'm asking you to take the jerks and the dictators along with them.)

At the end of the day, the overarching idea is to free people from religion so that they can "focus on science and love", which will make the world better. Long story short, whether someone's moral center is based on fact or not, if their morals are good, by removing their center, how have you made the world better?


Anonymous said...

You're adopting an approach that most religious people are harmless, and the respectful thing to do is to leave them alone. (Which seems reasonable.)

Some religions, like Buddhism, are genuinely benign. But others, like Christianity, teach bigotry against a long list of "outsiders". If Christians and Muslims (to pick on just two) were genuinely benign, we would not have religiously-motivated hate crimes against gays, nonbelievers, women, and members of competing religions. While I can accept your list of atheist revolutionaries and dictators, I'm not aware that any of them killed in the name of Atheism, which has no doctrine other than "no belief in God", and therefore no inherent bigotry.

The problem with believers of things that are not true doesn't come from those that remain harmless, it comes from something as simple as a state board of education election that can make the difference between teaching our kids sound science in school, and teaching that evolution and creationism stand on equal ground. Atheists wouldn't need to speak out and proselytize about their lack of belief if believers wouldn't continually try to inject their specific brand of belief into public education and government. Atheists do not generally feel the need to put 2000-pound, 6-foot tall, $10,000 granite monuments on state capital grounds with an inscription that says "There is no god." But [some] Christians absolutely feel the need to do so with monuments of the Bible's 10 commandments.

I believe the world would be a better place without religious bigotry. There really is no such thing as atheist bigotry, as atheists have no doctrine, let alone a doctrine of hating and killing others. Christianity and Islam suffer from bigotry as a critical part of their doctrine. I'd have to agree with Penn that this is worth speaking out against. I think it's hard to argue that people need a doctrine of bigotry as a moral crutch. You suggest that people "need" their religious belief for moral guidance. If you can surgically remove the bigotry in their religious doctrine, then I'd agree there's nothing wrong with letting people believe whatever crazy shit they want to. But with the bigotry intact, I can't agree.

Aaron Allermann said...

"I'm not aware that any of them killed in the name of Atheism, which has no doctrine other than "no belief in God", and therefore no inherent bigotry."

Like I said earlier, Communist nations in the Cold War era enforced atheism as a state religion, and North Korea still does. The Cultural Revolution killed in the name of anything that smacked of any kind of culture whatsoever, religion included. Hoxha was proclaimed in 1967 to have made the world's first atheist nation in Albania (though actions were taken against religious institutions as early as 1945).

So yes, there have been violent acts taken in the direct name of atheism. What happens in these cases is that the state wants to remove the religion from people's lives as a way to crush their spirit and make them more pliable. With religion, the people can get through the suffering the state imposes on them because they believe there will be something better after some random guard finally puts a bullet in them, or that their god will give them the strength to overthrow their oppressor. Take away that religion, and that little spark of hope is snuffed out. There is nothing afterwards; there's no higher power coming to give you strength; there is no hope of something better awaiting you. There is only the cold, dark reality of the massive political machine dedicated to turning you into human cattle that you cannot hope to defeat on your own. Enjoy.