Religion Gives Comfort. So What?

If you are reading this you are likely of the atheist persuasion, and thus have most likely seen, among the 9/11 remembrances in your news feed yesterday, at least a few pointing out that religion was at the heart of the tragedy. You may have also seen some of the backlash against those comments – most often some variant of the proclamation, “How dare you criticize something that gives people comfort!”

Let me now explain why that makes no fucking sense.

First and most obviously is that something being a comfort is entirely irrelevant to whether it should be subjected to criticism. What if some people take comfort in shooting heroin? Or setting houses on fire? Or smothering kittens? And before you say I can’t make those comparisons, recall that the claim is strictly that that which gives comfort is off limits for criticism, not that which gives comfort and is also innocuous. Something giving comfort is not evidence that said something is inherently good, or entitled to deferential treatment.

But let’s say for the sake of argument that what they’re claiming is, in fact, we should not criticize that which gives comfort and is also harmless. This still does not exempt religion because of the mountains of empirical evidence which show beyond any doubt that religion is far from harmless – including the point that religion caused the 9/11 tragedy in the first place.

Third, even if we concede that many people do find comfort in their religious beliefs, why should that immunize religion from criticism? Okay, it gives comfort . . . So fucking what? Are you suggesting that the little people are too weak-minded to survive if the rest of us don’t kowtow to their precious beliefs? Or are you inadvertently admitting that the self-delusion required to maintain faith in a just and loving god in the face of a devastating tragedy like 9/11 cannot withstand pointed questions without collapsing in on itself? And if it’s the latter, is that really so terrible? Atheists know well that it is entirely possible to cope with the harsh realities of life without relying on invisible friends; indeed, for many atheists it is more comforting to understand that disasters are the result of human frailty or natural processes beyond our control without having to reconcile human suffering with an omnipotent, omnibenevolent god who could prevent suffering, but doesn’t.

Beyond its common theme that religion should be privileged above all other endeavors, perhaps the most insidious effect of “don’t criticize religion because it gives comfort” is that it enables continued religious harm. It is not in dispute that religion caused the terrible events of September 11, 2001 – but for reasons that escape me it is considered worse to acknowledge that reality than to perpetuate the conditions that inevitably result in more violence and pointless loss of life. It’s like a terrible cycle of “religion caused this tragedy – but don’t point out that religion caused this tragedy – because people need religion for comfort – which they will need when religion causes another tragedy.” If we instead were willing to look reality in the eye it might be possible for us to find solutions – but as Dr. Phil used to say, you can’t change what you don’t acknowledge.

Perhaps it is time to take a more critical and realistic look at what religion actually does in society. Perhaps if we stop pretending that atrocities are not committed in its name there would be fewer atrocities, and we would not require so much of it for comfort.

A Few Words About Apologetics

I caught some flak over my last blog post, Ten Reasons Why Christianity Makes No Sense, mostly from would-be apologists claiming that my arguments were “unsophisticated” and “show how little” I know about the bible. I even had one person cite what he claimed were marriage laws from Old Testament times to show how the prohibition against coveting one’s neighbor’s wife is perfectly reasonable as one of god’s highest priorities. I’ll admit, that one made me chuckle.

To the people who claim that arguments against religion in general and Christianity in particular must be “sophisticated” to be relevant, I have this response: Thank you for proving my point. From where I sit, the mere existence of apologetics reflects the weakness of the argument for Christianity. If someone needs to be a scholar on the marriage laws of the pre-literate Middle East in order to accept why “don’t check out your neighbor’s wife’s ass” makes the short list of divine moral instructions but “don’t rape your neighbor’s daughter” doesn’t, that simply demonstrates – rather explicitly, in fact – that the proposition is absurd on its face. When your claim requires elaborate rationalization and broad interpretation to be reconciled with a pre-existing notion of a loving and just god, it’s a clue that your claim isn’t a very strong one.

bible-Sunlight

Apologists and theologians in general love to tell atheists why their interpretations of bible passages that portray their god and their religion in a poor light are incorrect. But the contradictions and ambiguity of the texts themselves, and the myriad ways of reading them, belie that there is no wrong interpretation, and no right one either. There are thousands of sects of Christianity, none of which has 100% uniformity of belief, resulting in literally millions of interpretations  of what the bible is really saying. And yet, when an atheist points out the missed opportunity of the Ten Commandments to not issue proscriptions against rape and slavery, apologists expect to be taken seriously when they say we only think that because we are too “unsophisticated” to apply a more favorable interpretation.

I don’t debate apologists for this very reason. It is an exercise in futility and a waste of time to engage in a process in which one’s opponent, by making the argument at all, has already admitted defeat.

Ten Reasons Why Christianity Makes No Sense

When I discovered the online atheist community a few years ago, one of the things that astounded and humbled me the most was the scholarliness of so many activist atheists. I had never before been in the company of so many people so versed in scripture, so skilled in the arts of rhetoric and argumentation, so keen to identifying and deconstructing logical fallacies. I’m not going to lie: It’s often been intimidating to be surrounded by people whose expertise in such things is so far beyond my own comparatively unsophisticated approach. As time passes, though, and I learn more and more about these subjects, I find that my basic issues with religion in general, and Christianity in particular, have not evolved to more abstract ontological questions, but have rather crystallized my inability to reconcile even the most basic and fundamental principles of Christian faith.  The following, while not by any means an exhaustive list, represent what for me are the biggest head-scratchers.

1. Jesus didn’t die. Christians are always going on about how Jesus died for our sins, but if he came back after three days then he didn’t really die at all; more like being in a brief coma, which is a drag, but not exactly the ultimate sacrifice that the crucifixion is cracked up to be. And it wasn’t just his spirit that departed to heaven, but his actual physical being. If you go dig up a three-day old grave, regardless of what you think may have happened to that person’s immortal soul, odds are there’s still going to be a body in it. Jesus’ tomb, on the other hand, was empty, meaning that following his resurrection he was either a zombie or he was fully alive, neither of which is dead. Even more relevant is that when he was hanging there on the cross, Jesus knew that he was going to come back. He didn’t have to endure the fear of death that any other human being would have had to face or the uncertainty that presumably afflicts all but the most devout at the moment of death about whether there really was going to be an afterlife, or if this was lights out for good. Yes, he probably suffered physically, but he knew that death would be no more than a long nap and then he’d be up and at ‘em again. In any meaningful sense, he didn’t die.
2. Jesus didn’t have faith. Jesus was always rolling his eyes and scolding his disciples for not having enough faith. There are many verses to be found in the New Testament in which Jesus says some variation of, “Don’t trust your senses, don’t look for evidence, just accept it because I said so.” But if Jesus was the son of god, then faith wasn’t something he needed – he knew god and heaven were real because that’s where he came from, no faith required. How fair is it to command the rest of the world to accept something on faith alone, threatening eternal punishment to any who don’t believe it, when you yourself have no need of faith because you possess all the evidence?
3. Jesus didn’t take away my sins. Or did he? I am no logician, but if Jesus died to take away the sins of humanity, then doesn’t that mean that once he was crucified there was no longer any such thing as sin? If his “death” was the absolution of the human race, why do I still have to do what the bible says, or go to church, or even believe? Aren’t I already saved by his “sacrifice?” And if I am not, and there are still rules to follow and sins that could keep me out of heaven, then what, precisely, have I gained from it?
4. Jesus wasn’t a very nice guy. American Christians talk a lot about “family values,” but that concept doesn’t have much, if any, basis in the actual story of Christ. Jesus demanded that his disciples abandon their families and save all of their devotion for him and him alone – a rather narcissistic and not particularly family-centric expectation. Aside from seeming to be in direct contradiction to the commandment about honoring thy mother and father, abandoning spouses and children, while not against any commandments, still seems like a douchey thing to do, even 2,000 years ago.
5. Jesus’ dad was really not a nice guy. We all know that the bible is full of rape, murder, genocide, slavery, and every manner of atrocity – and not in a, “This is what our enemies do so don’t be like them” way, but in a “As long as you are one of mine, have at it” way. Then Jesus showed up and said, more or less, that the old laws still applied, and he wasn’t about to change them. Yes, he was willing to call out hypocrisy, and he did seem to care somewhat about social justice – at least with regard to poverty and leprosy – but otherwise he was still the enforcer of some rather distasteful rules. And don’t even get me started on Jesus being his own father – a concept that, in addition to being patently bizarre on its face, makes Jesus himself the very same god of the Old Testament that Christians like to dismiss as no longer relevant (except, of course, when it comes to hating gays).

Prayer

6. Prayer is contradictory. We are told that god has a plan for everything, but then we are told to pray – for our loved ones to get better when they fall ill, for safety in the storm, for the home team to win the big game. Does that mean god will change his plan if you pray hard enough, or the right way, or get enough other people to pray for the same thing? This seems to suggest that God doesn’t have much of a plan at all, since he’s apparently willing to simply do whatever gets the most prayers or favors those who ingratiate themselves the most or who have prayed the best – not to mention that it’s a rather arbitrary, even capricious, approach to human suffering. Further, people often say they pray for things like inner peace, strength, understanding, the solution to personal problems, etc. I don’t pray, but I do a lot of introspection in search of those same things, and then I do either what my conscience tells me is right or what my objectivity tells me has the best chance for the desired outcome. I suspect that people who pray end up doing more or less the same thing but attributing their conclusion to an outside agency – in which case, how strange is it to carve out your conscience, that innermost part of yourself, the very core of what makes you you, and say it isn’t you?
7. The bible doesn’t set the moral bar very high. Let’s face it: Don’t rape people, don’t own people, don’t hate people, and don’t hurt children are kind of no-brainers when it comes to morality. Our friend Jesus and his old man not only failed to make these things clear, but in many instances they encouraged, condoned, or commanded them. Sure, Jesus said a few things about loving your neighbor and being kind to strangers, but he also said that not believing in him was the worst offense a person could commit and that anyone who didn’t believe would burn in Hell for all eternity. And seriously, the Ten Commandments as a basis for all morality? Checking out your neighbor’s wife is worse than raping his daughter? Taking the lord’s name in vain is worse than owning slaves? Nice priorities. Add to this the fact that god himself does not follow his own rules, to which Christians usually respond that mere mortals cannot understand or judge the morality of god. But if the bible defines morality, and god has a different set of rules for himself than for humans, and we are not allowed to know or understand his rules except that we are expected to do as he says but not as he does, then how exactly does that provide any kind of moral baseline whatsoever?  For a group that loves to point fingers at atheists for supposed moral relativism, what could be more relative than that?
8. Christian love is rarely very loving. We hear a lot about Jesus’ love and god’s love and how god so loved the world that he gave his only son yada yada yada. We already covered the part about him not really giving up his son at all, and enough has been said by people smarter than I am about the questionable necessity of having a baby, leaving him be for 30 years, torturing him to death, and then bringing him back to life a few days later as a way of forgiving humanity instead of – oh, I don’t know, just saying “I forgive you.” We covered too that this supposed forgiveness isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on if I’m still considered a sinner and an apostate and bound for hell for not believing. But if we set that part of the contradiction aside, how loosely are we defining love if we are applying it to the bible? “I love you so much that I will torture and murder my own son as a symbol of something I could just give you without the bloodbath. I love you so much that I will reward you with an eternity in heaven, but you have to suffer and die in this world first. Salvation is yours, so long as you swear your devotion to me and only me. And believe what I say even if it sounds like nonsense because I told you to. And admit that deep down you are a rotten piece of garbage who doesn’t really deserve my love. And if you don’t do all of these things you will burn in a lake of fire for all eternity. But seriously, I love you.”
9. Terrible things happen to good people. A quarter of a million people died in the tsunami of 2006. Twenty first graders and six adults were slaughtered at Sandy Hook. People die of starvation, are killed by war and disease, are raped or beaten by people who have power over them, and suffer in countless other ways. If there is an omniscient, omnipotent god who is also loving, as Christians would have us believe, why do these things happen? Why do children suffer and die? Why are there droughts and floods and famines and pestilences and earthquakes and wars? Why couldn’t god just make people nice? Why create natural disasters? Why didn’t he set forth better, clearer rules to eliminate ambiguity about how we are supposed to treat each other? God either intervenes or he doesn’t; god is either omnipotent or he isn’t. If he does and he is, then suffering exists because god intends for it to be that way. If he doesn’t and he isn’t, then he isn’t in control of anything, including the minutiae of how we live our daily lives. How is either a god worthy of worship?
10. It’s all just way too convenient. Got what you prayed for? He answered your prayers. Praise Jesus! Didn’t get it? He has another plan. Praise Jesus! Don’t have the answers? You’re not meant to. Praise Jesus! Figured out the answer? He chose you. Praise Jesus! Sad about the deaths of your loved ones? They’re in a better place. Praise Jesus! Sad about how much your life sucks? You’ll be happy once you’re dead. Praise Jesus! Honestly, when the answer to every question is exactly the thing that makes you feel best / most comforted / least in need of using your own intellect, should that not send up a huge red flag that maybe you’re not being completely objective?

I am not, of course, the first person to make these observations, and no doubt there are many who have made them better. But as someone who has lived an entire life without religion, the exercises of engaging apologists, philosophizing, or running ontological obstacle courses seem – perhaps naively, but seem nonetheless – to be almost beside the point when the most basic premises of religious belief are so deeply flawed and, not to put too fine a point on it, rather ridiculous. These irreconcilable contradictions explain a lot about why religious indoctrination is necessary at a very young age, and sadly, they explain a lot about why the world is in the sorry state it is: Because they make people adept at rationalizing the irrational, believing the unlikely, and justifying the immoral.

This article first appeared in Atheist Survival Guide in December 2014.