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How Religion (Indirectly) Re-enforces Inequality

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I once knew a guy who worked a job he hated for an overpaid boss he’d once described as a cross between Patrick Bateman and Darth Vader. I can’t put into words how much he resented that man. To make matters worse, he was one of those bosses whose family had connections. He couldn’t get fired, let alone disciplined. Even if he did, he had a trust fund that ensured he’d never work a day in his life.

My friend shared all sorts of horror stories with me, but I often found myself asking why he stayed at that job for so long. I also asked why he didn’t try to do something about it. I’m no lawyer, but I’m fairly confident that he could’ve sued his boss and won. He never did and gave plenty of reasons, some more understandable than others.

However, one particular reason stood out to me. While I don’t remember his exact words, this is what he told me.

“I’m not concerned. I know that one day, that asshole will die and when he gets to the gates of Heaven, he won’t be able to hide anymore. He’ll go to Hell. I’ll go to Heaven. I believe God is just. No matter how bad things get in this life, the scales always balance in the next.”

Now, I wasn’t surprised by this sentiment. This particular friend of mine was very religious. He’d gone to church every Sunday. He and his pastor were on a first-name basis. He could quote bible verses the same way I could quote X-Men comics. He knew his theology and I don’t doubt it helped him endure that awful job that he somehow endured for several years.

While I respect my friend and his faith, I find the notion of taking comfort in someone’s afterlife punishment more than a little unsettling. It’s not just due to the schadenfreude inherent in that sentiment. What I find most troubling is how this common theological concept perpetuates imbalances, injustices, and inequalities, albeit indirectly.

The very notion of an afterlife, especially with respect to concepts of Hell, has plenty of troubling issues. From both a theological and non-theological standpoint, it frames everything that occurs in the current life we’re living as a prelude for the much grander life to come. Even if a view of the afterlife has no concept of Hell, it still devalues our current lives to some extent.

However, when divine justice enters the equation, as it often did for my friend, there’s a less obvious impact that has real consequences in the non-religious lives of many. I would even argue that those consequences influenced society on multiple levels at many points throughout history. The extent of those consequences are hard to gauge, but the implications are unavoidable.

To illustrate, think back to the terrible boss my friend described. Think of him as a placeholder for any rich, entitled, over-privileged class of people in history. He could be a king, a warlord, a cleric, an emperor, or just some powerful tribal leader. By any measure, this individual has more power and wealth than almost everyone else.

While that earns them many benefits, from having all the nice stuff to attracting all the best sexual partners, it also makes them a target. What exactly entitles them to have all that power and wealth? Did they earn it? Did they fight for it and win it? What do they have to do to maintain it?

The answers vary, depending on circumstance and context. Some are more responsible with wealth and power than others. However, if we’re going to grasp the bigger picture here, we have to acknowledge the general guidelines of human nature and, chief among them, is the inclination to take the path of least resistance.

Like it or not, human beings are wired to take the easiest possible path to resolve an issue. That’s especially true of difficult tasks, such as maintaining an objectively unequal status within a society. Seeing as how humans, and even other primates, have an innate sense of justice, this is an issue that the rich, wealthy, and powerful cannot avoid.

That’s where religion enters the picture. Logistically speaking, it offers some convenient justifications for an objectively unequal situation. It’s not just that the boss, cleric, king, warlord, or rich asshole inherited their status. It was divinely granted to them.

That helps solve several major problems for the rich and powerful off the back. It means those who consider themselves pious and devout can’t just rebel against those of greater wealth. Doing so would mean protesting the will of the divine. For anyone concerned about facing divine wrath, that’s a major incentive to accept the current situation. In some cases, they even celebrate it.

That kind of divine excuse has another benefit, as well. For people like my friend, who have to toil under wealthy, entitled bosses, it gives them comfort about their current lot in life. While they could go through the trouble of fighting back, that’s both laborious and risky. Historically, powerful people don’t react kindly to being challenged and they don’t always fight back with lawyers.

Religion provides them another, less exhaustive option. Instead of going through all that trouble and taking all those risks, they need only keep living their current lives. They need not worry about contesting people like my friend’s tyrannical boss. He’ll face justice after he dies. That’s not just comforting. It plays directly into our natural inclination to resist change.

The only change these people believe in.

On a larger scale, this has minor personal benefits to the devout, but major benefits to the wealthy and powerful. If the vast majority of people are convinced that oppressors will get theirs in the afterlife, they’re not going to be as inclined to protest the status quo or, in the worst-case scenario, demand change that requires a loss of wealth and power.

This is especially important for religious leaders who, unlike governments or business elites, have to keep justifying why people devote their time, labor, and money to the institution. That’s tough when religious organizations don’t pay taxes, enrich top officials, and wield significant authority on geopolitical level.

It’s considerably easy, though, if the theology in question convinces adherents that the wealth and power of the institution is divinely granted. As a result, the inequality between the average believer and the top official is justified. That’s how the deity wants it. Even if some are corrupt, and there have been many, they’ll eventually face justice in the afterlife.

It gets even easier when adherents and believers are uneducated and uninformed. My friend wasn’t stupid, but he didn’t get much of an education, which was why he got stuck in a lot of bad jobs. His story is not uncommon. In general, the less educated you are, the more religious you tend to be. On top of that, less education often means a higher chance of living and staying in poverty.

In that context, it makes sense for religion to discourage critical thinking and higher education that isn’t specifically sanctioned by their institutions. If people aren’t educated, then they’re not just ill-equipped to question authority. They’ll remain in poverty and so too will their children, who are more likely to adopt their parents’ piety.

It’s a self-reinforcing cycle. People are born into their current lot. They either appreciate or resent it. Religion helps provide justification for it, however good or bad it might be. It gives them an excuse to accept it and pass it onto the next generation. Any inequality or injustice within that system remains in place and can even widen under the right circumstances.

Now, this is the point where I try to temper my rhetoric because I know the mechanisms I just described seem cynical. It gives the impression that every religious figure throughout history was just some greedy schemer who knew they were lying to gullible people and taking advantage of their faith to benefit themselves. I want to make clear that this is not the message I’m trying to send.

Are there religious and non-religious people who are that corrupt? There most certainly are. Some are more egregious than others. Some are historically egregious. I believe that most people, even those at the top of the hierarchy, are sincere in their piety. They don’t see their religion as a mechanism for propagating inequality and injustice. That’s why I see this impact as indirect.

Even if all organized religion disappeared tomorrow, I don’t doubt for a second that the wealthy and the powerful would find some other way to protect their status. For now, and for a good chunk of history, religion has been a powerful tool to justify and maintain this immense disparity.

Relying on the afterlife is convenient, but it requires assumptions that no human being can know for certain. Nobody truly knows what happens, if anything, after we die. We only know that no matter how rich or wealthy you are in life, death still affects you all the same. It is, in many respects, the ultimate equalizer.

In many respects, that’s the most valuable asset that the religious and the wealthy have going for them. The fact that nobody truly knows means that nobody can prove them wrong when they say their power is divinely protected. It also means that people like my friend can’t be proven wrong when they take comfort in the idea of his boss getting divine justice at some point. The result is still the same.

People on both ends of the inequality spectrum have an excuse to not change the situation. While there are some circumstance that are unalterable due to forces beyond anyone’s control, there are certainly some that can and should be confronted. As long as people find excuses in divine forces that cannot be confirmed, the inequality will only continue.

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Filed under Current Events, extremism, human nature, philosophy, psychology, religion

Revealing (And Deconstructing) A Theological Journey In “Lucifer” Season 4

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In a world where Heaven and Hell are real, celestial beings exist, and the devil has Tom Ellis’ sex appeal, how do you know what is holy and unholy?

How can you be sure that everything you think you know about divinity, sin, and tradition is true?

How can you even be sure that your beliefs are true?

These are just some of the questions that come up in the first three seasons of “Lucifer.” Most of those questions were explored, but unresolved. For a while, it seemed like they would go unanswered after Fox canceled the show. Then, Netflix performed and unholy miracle and saved it, releasing a fourth season that continued this devilishly journey.

Having been a fan of the show since it debuted, I set aside large swaths of my weekend to binge-watch all 10 episodes and follow Lucifer Morningstar through the next round of hellish endeavors. Through three seasons, “Lucifer” has crafted a uniquely polished theology that emphasizes individual freedom, personal responsibility, and pursuing desires. I had lofty expectations, to say the least.

Lofty expectations personified.

Considering the overt sex appeal in some of the promos, I was more than a little skeptical that it could measure up. Without getting into all the juicy details, some of which includes clear shots of Tom Ellis’ butt, I’ll say without hesitation that Season 4 of “Lucifer” raised the bar for just how divinely great this show can be. I’ll also say it succeeded masterfully in expanding both the drama and the theology of the show.

Through 10 episodes these characters that have undergone so much upheaval take huge in their respective story arcs. In doing so, the overall world and the divine machinations that drive it expand. I could write multiple articles about each character, from Lucifer to Chloe to Amenadiel to Ella Lopez, and how they evolved as characters.

However, after watching every episode and taking the time to process it all, I believe that the biggest success of this season of “Lucifer” is in how it refines its devilish theology while deconstructing others. From the first episode to the tenth, the divine and not-so-divine forces guiding these characters acts as the catalyst that makes every other part of this show work.

By far, the biggest upheaval of Season 4, if not the entire show, is Chloe Decker accepting that Lucifer really is the devil. It took three seasons to get to that point. For a while, it was a running gag in that Lucifer was so overt about his identity. Chloe, like everyone else, just didn’t believe him. Now, having seen his devil face and his wings, she can’t avoid the truth.

This hits Lucifer almost as hard as Chloe. It adds a huge complication to their relationship, which had been growing deeper since the latter part of Season 3. It changes the dynamics between them considerably. They can’t be as coy or playful as they were with Lucifer’s devilish persona as they were in previous seasons. At some point, the truth must seep in.

Chloe’s initial reaction and eventual acceptance of that persona is incredibly revealing, both in terms of how it impacts her character and how it impacts the theology of the show. After seeing Lucifer’s true face, she faces a daunting challenge. This man, who she has grown so very close to, is the literal devil. How can she possibly process that?

All she has to go on are all the stories people tell about the devil. Many cultures offer various histories of this unholy figure. In some, he’s a fallen angel. In others, he’s evil personified. Whatever his heritage, they all have a similar theme. Lucifer is not one of the good guys. If anything, he’s the standard on which all evil is measured.

None of those stories completely mesh with the Lucifer that Chole knows. While she has seen him act in selfish, narcissistic ways, she has also witnessed his capacity for good. He will go out of his way to pursue justice, ensuring nobody escapes righteous punishment. He also has an admirable code of honor. He doesn’t lie. He doesn’t betray the trust of others. He also makes good on his deals.

These personal experiences do not fit the caricature that generations of mythology and folklore have espoused. It leaves Chloe incredibly conflicted. On one hand, she has all these texts and traditions telling her one thing about the devil. On the other, she has her own personal experiences that she has witnessed first-hand. What is she supposed to believe?

It presents an indirect, but powerful criticism about how others perceive God, Satan, and divinity in general. In many respects, it strikes at the foundation of everything anyone ever assumed about the devil. Most of us only ever have these time-tested traditions to go on when we imagine the persona of the devil. How can we be sure any of them are true?

For most people, it’s impossible to know. As a result, they live their lives thinking they have a clear understanding of who the devil is and where he fits in any divine plan. The fact that so many of these ancient stories agree that the devil is evil comes off as legitimate proof that he cannot be trusted.

This is where Chloe’s work as a detective really pays off. She knows better than most that it is possible for commonly-accepted stories to be wrong. Even before she saw Lucifer’s true face, she demonstrates time and again that even the most comprehensive anecdotes can be flawed. That’s why she always pursues actual, verifiable evidence.

In the first three seasons of “Lucifer,” she sees ample evidence that Lucifer is not evil incarnate. He has plenty of opportunities to do deplorable things and get away with it. He ultimately chooses not to. He even gives understandable reasons, every step of the way. In essence, he gives Chloe his side of the story, which never gets told in religious texts.

It’s true that he rebelled against God. It’s also true that he ruled Hell and oversaw the punishment and torture of countless souls. However, is that enough to make him evil? Is punishing those who deserve it an evil act? He even made clear in one episode that the punishment isn’t technically eternal. People simply endure whatever torment their guilt conjures in a repetitive time loop.

What makes this so revealing, both for Chloe’s story and the overall theology of the show, is how it deconstructs traditional notions of evil, the devil, and how people navigate right and wrong. Chloe has to process all these influences, many of which give her conflicting information. Some tell her Lucifer is evil. Some tell her he’s not. She’s genuinely torn, right up until the final episode.

In the end, the determining factor in “Lucifer” comes back the individual. In both this show and the comic that inspired it, the individual is ultimately responsible for making that choice and shouldering the responsibility. It reflects the heart of Lucifer’s rebellious persona. From the first episode to the dramatic climax of Season 4, it’s all about what an individual chooses.

There’s no divine will to choose for us.

There’s no divine plan that guides us.

There’s only what each individual chooses to do and the consequences of those choices.

The way Lucifer goes about it seems selfish, at times. He and others like him freely pursue their desires, unconcerned with how they offend traditional notions of civility or decency. When there are consequences, they don’t avoid them. It effectively builds an entire theology around individual empowerment and personal desire.

For most of the show, Lucifer is the embodiment of that theology. In Season 4, it’s Chloe who best reflects this sentiment. She is the one who decides whether to accept Lucifer for who he is. She has to sift through all the competing traditions, assumptions, and influences to decide for herself. On top of that, Lucifer must make similar choices about who he is and his place in the world.

By the end of Season 4, both Lucifer and Chloe make critical decisions that have a truly heart-wrenching impact. They’re each perfect personifications of a theological journey centered around the individual. Whether that individual is human or a celestial being doesn’t matter. Their choices are still the most powerful acts they can ever perform.

There are plenty of other ways in which this theology manifests. The parallel story surrounding Amenadiel and Dr. Linda involve some very weighty choices, as well. Ella Lopez and Dan “Detective Douche” Espinoza face their share of touch decisions as well. There are also the choices made by Eve, who is by far the most colorful addition to Season 4.

Then, there’s Mazikeen. She’s just awesome all around and has been since Season 1.

There are many other plots, concepts, complexities to explore with “Lucifer.” Season 4 does more in 10 episodes than the past two seasons, combined. It doubles down on notions of individuals charting their own spiritual path, pursuing their own desires, and taking responsibility for their actions. The results are dramatic in both a holy and unholy context.

There’s still plenty to build upon. While I won’t spoil the end of the final episode, I will note that it lays a solid foundation for Season 5. At the moment, it’s not clear whether Netflix will pick it up again. However, Tom Ellis himself has stated that there’s still more story to tell. Given the rich mythology the show has conjured in four seasons, I totally believe him.

Fittingly enough, the devil is in the details and there are still plenty of details to explore.

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How The Concept Of Boredom Subverts The Concept Of Hell (And Heaven)

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When we’re kids, we tend to exaggerate how tortuous a situation is. To us, the first day of school, a dentist appointment, or a 10-hour road trip in a car with a broken radio is its own circle of hell. As adults, we exaggerate too. There are times when being stuck in traffic or in a house with poor wi-fi is considered hell. Sure, there’s no fire and brimstone, but that doesn’t make the experience any less hellish.

The takeaway from that kind of exaggeration is that our concept of torture tends to be exceedingly relative. It’s one thing to be in constant pain, which is torture at its most pure. It’s quite another when it strains our psyche, our sanity, and our willingness to endure it.

I highlight this disparity because it’s important to consider in any discussions about Hell. By that, I don’t just mean the feelings we have when we’re sick, hung over, or working overtime on a weekend. I’m referring to the actual religious, philosophical, and literal concept of Hell that fuel our worst nightmares.

I get that this is not a very sexy topic. You could argue that it’s the least sexy topic anyone could discuss and probably win. However, there’s a reason why I’m bringing it up. It has less to do with religious connotations and more to do with the larger implications. To some extent, it may even alleviate some of those distressing sentiments surrounding hell.

That might be hoping for too much because few issues make people more uncomfortable than Hell. Even among the deeply devout, the idea that there’s this terrible place full of unending, unparalleled torture that people consciously experience second after second for eons on end is extremely distressing. By definition, it’s the ultimate form of torture that nobody can hope to escape, resist, or endure.

It’s for that very reason that a literal Hell is often seen as a problem among atheists and theists alike. The very idea of eternal torture doesn’t just clash with the idea of a loving deity. It also conflicts with every notion of justice. We are, after all, finite beings living in a finite world. How can any finite person do anything to warrant infinite torture?

The debate over the merits of infinite punishment for finite sins is one of those theological and ethical debates that has been going on for centuries. I’m not smart enough or spiritual enough to resolve it so I’m not going to try. Instead, I want to highlight a particular detail about the concept of hell and it’s a concept I have discussed more than most theologians.

That concept is boredom, a force that may be more powerful than any fiery sermon about hell. It has already led some to murder and I’ve argued that it could be a plague of the future. In contemplating and studying the power of boredom, though, I’ve noticed that it has a very peculiar effect when applied to the concept of Hell.

Simply put, boredom renders Hell, even the eternal variety, utterly ineffective and ultimately meaningless. That’s not to say eternal torture, or torture of that extent, is justified ethically. My point is that when you inject boredom into the equations of Hell, then all the tenants surrounding it break down.

To illustrate this point, think back to an experience in your life that you considered tortuous. Maybe it was an injury. Maybe it was a relationship. Maybe it was just a family reunion that you couldn’t wait to end. However bad it was, physically or mentally, there’s usually a point where you become numb to it.

It’s not just a function of our brains, which has actual mechanisms for adapting and adjusting to all sorts of torment. It’s a product of perception itself. Experience something so often for so long and it suddenly doesn’t become the aberration. It becomes the norm. When you think about the implications of that, then the concept of Hell breaks down.

Take, for instance, your current state of being. Assuming you’re not sick or in any significant discomfort, you don’t consider this state as painful. From your perspective, it’s a normal state of being and one with which you’ve become familiar over the course of your life.

Now, imagine for a moment, that everyone in the world sees your state and is aghast. They’re horrified that anyone could live, like you do. They see your current state as pure torture, one that they wouldn’t wish on anyone. You’re understandably confused, but can only do so much to grasp it because from your point of view, your condition is normal.

In a less theatrical example, consider those who live in what we might classify as extreme poverty. According to the World Bank, about 10.7 percent of the world’s population lives in extreme poverty. To these people, imagine what their concept of normal is. Torture to them is not being able to eat for days on end whereas torture for some is having to eat at McDonald’s five nights a week.

When it comes to suffering, eternal or otherwise, perception matters. You could argue it’s the only thing that matters. Someone who grew up rich and affluent may consider living in a mid-level apartment in Detroit torture whereas someone who grew up poor might see it as an upgrade. It all depends on how someone’s sense of normal develops.

When you add eternity to the mix, then things get somewhat paradoxical and boredom is at the heart of it. Imagine, if you can, that first moment when a hapless soul is condemned to Hell. Moments after they die, they descend into that horrible lake of fire that many religious texts and famous poets describe with such vivid detail.

Naturally, it’s torturous, plain and simple. Whatever kind of torment Hell offers, be it constant burning or being forced to watch “The Emoji Movie” for all eternity, is exceedingly painful to that poor soul. There’s no getting around that.

However, after a good long while though, such torment loses its impact. Remember, we’re dealing with eternity here. Time tends to obscure our frame of reference. It doesn’t matter how long we lived or how well we remember that life. After enough time, that whole experience will become a minor blip.

That’s a critical reference point because everything we think we know about pain, pleasure, and boredom are derived from those life experiences. Given that those experiences are finite while hell is infinite, it’s literally only a matter of time before Hell ceases to become a place of torment and just becomes our sense of normal.

Beyond normal, though, even the extremes of Hell that holy texts and poets describe lose their luster once boredom enters the picture. Do anything long enough and often enough and chances are, it’ll get boring to some extent. Why else would there be so many kinks and fetishes surrounding sex?

It’s true. Even I, an aspiring erotica/romance writer, don’t deny that sex can become boring. If something as inherently pleasurable as sex can become boring, then anything as pleasurable or painful could become boring as well. Given enough time, repetition, and inanity and it’s inevitable. Add eternity to the mix and, invariably, everything becomes boring.

It doesn’t matter if you’re burning in a lake of fire for trillions upon trillions of years. Eventually, it becomes so mundane that it ceases to become torture. At that point, Hell isn’t even a punishment anymore and it completely loses its purpose.

There are some forms of Hell that try to work around this. In the Fox TV show, “Lucifer,” the torment in hell technically isn’t eternal. In the show, Hell is a domain in which the damned are forced to relive the worst parts of their life over and over again. Even Lucifer himself endured that in one episode.

This isn’t eternal, though, because from the perspective of those being tortured, it isn’t an eternity. From their point of view, it’s just one really bad day. It doesn’t matter if the loop goes on for a trillion years. From their perspective, it’s still one day. If anything, the only one really suffering is Marcus “Cain” Pierce, who actually seeks death because, like Vandal Savage, an immortal life becomes unbearably boring after a few centuries.

That’s not just an irony. It highlights the underlying problem of applying eternity alongside boredom. After a certain amount of time, any experience, be it torture or euphoria, is going to lose its effect once boredom takes hold. In that sense, even Heaven loses its appeal because like pain, pleasure is not immune to the corrosive effects of boredom.

Now, some theologically minded people might still argue that an all-powerful deity would find some way to ensure boredom doesn’t undermine the punishment of Hell or the ecstasy of Heaven. However, doing so would require a total subversion of our mortal perceptions, which would in turn undermine the very experiences that are used to justify sending us to Heaven or Hell in the first place.

The fact that those perceptions are what we use to understand these places is the biggest flaw in the concept. Even an evil, vindictive deity would have to be exceedingly indifferent to standards of judgment and justice to even organize such a scheme.

The fact that so few holy texts or visions of Hell reference the power of boredom is a sign that there’s a disconnect between how the infinite effects the finite. It might also explain why visions of it have to be so terrifying to begin with. It even explains why Heaven has to be so appeal. In the context of eternity, the experience loses purpose eventually.

To some extent, we can take comfort in the idea that no matter how horrible Hell may be, if it even exists, boredom will eventually undermine those horrors. Granted, that means the pleasures of Heaven will be subject to the same effect, but it all evens out in the long run. Given enough time, we’re all subject to the same fate. It may seem grimly nihilistic for some, but I also think it’s comforting in how it binds us.

It also proves that, however powerful a deity may be, even the holiest of power pales in comparison to the might of boredom. Like erosion and entropy, boredom is the experience that overpowers us all eventually.

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