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Abortion Restrictions, Personhood, And The Difficult (And Absurd) Implications

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Imagine, for a moment, that an armed government officer shows up at your door and points a gun at your head. The officer informs you that for the next nine months, you will be injected with a generally non-fatal strain of flu that’ll make you feel tired, sore, and occasionally nauseous. Then, after that nine-month period is up, you’ll be given an infant child that you are henceforth responsible for.

Failure to comply with any part of that request will result in you or anyone who assists you going to prison for an extended period. You can protest it all you want. There’s no getting out of it. The government agent keeps the gun pointed at your head the entire time and if you want to avoid breaking the law, you just have to endure.

What I just described isn’t a perfect parallel to the strict abortion law recently passed by Alabama, but it helps illustrate what women are facing in light of such laws. While other parts of the world are liberalizing their abortion laws, certain parts of the United States are going in the other direction. However, the Alabama law represents a new extreme.

Now, even though I’ve discussed abortion before, I want to reiterate that I don’t like talking about this issue. It’s not because I’m a man or because I’m inherently skeptical of movements tied to organized religion. This issue affects everyone, regardless of gender. The principle alone of forcing someone to endure nine months of bodily rigor makes it relevant.

It’s for that reason that I tend to favor the pro-choice side of the debate. There are too many real-world examples of the dire consequences of a society where abortion is outright banned. I singled a former communist country one whose policy is quite similar to that of Alabama’s. However, my feelings on this issue go beyond just the consequences of these restrictive laws.

Even if I agreed with the idea that life beings at conception, I would still be in favor of keeping abortion legal in most cases. I just can’t support an effort that involves the government holding a gun to the head of women and their doctors, prohibiting them from making choices about their health and their bodies.

Now, I already know how the pro-life crowd will respond to that sentiment. They’ll point out that if life truly does begin at conception, then abortion is murder, by default. I’ll even concede that their reasoning isn’t entirely flawed. A fertilized embryo has many of the defining traits of biological life. It even has many traits we associate with personhood.

This idea that a fertilized embryo is a person makes up the bedrock of pro-life arguments. It’ll likely be the argument that’ll likely be used, should abortion access become an issue for the Supreme Court, which many pro-life groups are banking on. Considering how religious and logistical arguments rarely count much in a courtroom, this is their best bet.

There are a many flaws in the pro-life arguments, some of which I’ve touched on before, but this is the one I want to focus on because it’ll likely be cited more frequently as the debate intensifies. I believe that if abortion is ever banned in the United States, it’s because the law will recognize a fertilized embryo as a person.

However, with that distinction comes many implications, some of which lead to unavoidable inconsistencies. As the late George Carlin once so brilliantly illustrated, inconsistencies tend to reveal absurdities. To highlight just a few, here are just some of the questions that we’ll have to answer if we determine a fertilized embryo is a person.


If a fertilized embryo is a person, then at what point do identical twins become two individual persons?

This question has implications of its own. Part of the principle behind saying life begins at conception is the idea that when the sperm and egg meet, it combines to create a unique strand of human DNA, which constitutes human life. That sounds good on paper, but when identical twins enter the picture, it breaks down.

Identical twins, by definition, have the same DNA. At some point during gestation, they split into two individuals. At what point does that occur? By what basis are they distinct? If the answer to that is arbitrary, then how is saying life begins at conception any less arbitrary? Once personhood status is granted to a fetus, this will be something the law and doctors will have to answer.


If a fertilized embryo is a person, then does one that fails to implant on a woman’s uterus count as an accidental death under the law?

This happens to every sexually active woman, regardless of whether they’re in a monogamous marriage or working in a brothel. Even if an egg gets fertilized, it doesn’t always implant. The reasons for this are many, but if a fertilized egg is a person, then that still constitutes a death. As such, it would have to be treated as such under the law.

Most women don’t even know that a fertilized embryo has failed to implant. Most just end up getting flushed down a toilet, as part of their menstrual cycle. Under this legal definition of personhood, though, there’s no difference between that and flushing a live infant down a toilet. Given how Susan Smith was convicted of murder when she drowned her children, will other women face a similar sentence?


If a fertilized embryo is a person, then how does the state go about monitoring sexually active women to determine how many deaths occur because implantation did not occur?

This ties directly to the previous question. As soon as the law determines that an embryo is a person, it suddenly has a daunting challenge. It must now monitor and document every sexually active woman very closely to see how many fertilized embryos pass through her system, if only to determine how many deaths occurred inside her.

Even with advances in medical technology, it requires a level of invasiveness that even the most totalitarian state in the world can’t administer. There are over 150 million women in the United States. Is the government really equipped to monitor the activity inside every one of their wombs without breaking some very significant laws?


If a fertilized embryo is a person, then wouldn’t any woman who had a miscarriage be subject to manslaughter laws if her actions indirectly caused it?

This has already come up in a few states with restrictive abortion laws. Women who have suffered miscarriages are already being investigated as criminals. Ignoring, for a moment, the difficulty of determining whether a woman intentionally caused her miscarriage, look at it from a personal perspective.

A woman just suffers a miscarriage. She is likely distraught, distressed, and physically weakened. Now, government agents are going to treat her like a criminal and possibly prosecute her for a crime. While manslaughter is not on the same level as murder, it’s still treated as a crime and people do go to jail for it.

That means, for embryos to be considered persons, it must also be necessary to put women who suffered a miscarriage in prison. I don’t think even the most ardent pro-life adherent can comfortably stomach that.


If a fertilized embryo is a person, then would that person be legally culpable if a woman suffers complications during the pregnancy and dies?

This is somewhat a reversal of the previous question. There are occasions where pregnancy actually leads to a woman’s death. According to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 700 women die every year in the United States due to complications during pregnancy. In the cases where the infant survives, are they somehow culpable?

If an embryo is a person, then their actions can’t be entirely distinct from that of any child. There are cases in which children get convicted of murder and are punished for it. Even if an infant cannot have intent or malice, their presence inside the woman is still the cause of the complication. That means manslaughter or wrongful death could be applicable.

I know there’s plenty of inherent absurdity in the notion of prosecuting an infant for the wrongful death of his or her mother, but if they’re going to be defined as a person, then that includes the same rights and responsibilities. To do otherwise would just be inconsistent and require the same arbitrary distinctions of which pro-life individuals are so critical.


If a fertilized embryo is a person, then would that person be culpable in the event that an identical or fraternal twin dies in utero, as can be the case in Vanishing Twin Syndrome?

A lot of things can happen inside the womb during gestation. Twins are just one of them, but there are instances where the presence of another fetus causes one to die or become unviable. Regardless of whether it involves an identical twin or a fraternal twin, the legal implications are the same. One person has died while the other has not. Like any other person, it would have to be investigated.

It could be the case that one infant hogged nutrient, causing the other to starve to death. There are also cases in which one twin will absorb the other. Technically, that would make the other baby both a cannibal and a killer. It would have to be investigated and prosecuted as such.


I concede that some of the scenarios I’ve described are absurd. That’s my underlying point. If the pro-life movement gets its way and fertilized embryos are treated as legal persons, then that has consequences that are logistically, legally, and morally untenable.

The bigger picture surrounding these questions tends to get lost among those who simply call abortion murder. However, if those same people got their way, then they would be unable to avoid these questions and their consequences.

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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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Why The Republic Of Gilead Would Fail (Spectacularly) In The Real World

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In recent years, there has been a great deal of dread among feminists, libertarians, and supporters of secular values in the United States. The country seems to be going down an authoritarian path. Traditions of liberty and personal freedom are under threat by a government that seems more inclined to micromanage peoples’ lives for their own benefit.

One path in particular is becoming a lot more prominent. That is the one that could lead the United States to a government like that of the Republic of Gilead, the repressive theocratic regime from Margaret Atwood’s novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale.” In that system, gender politics are pushed to the utmost extreme. The freedom, equality, sex, and love that contemporary society enjoys doesn’t exist.

The reasons for these fears are many. The current state of gender politics has become heated with the rise of the anti-harassment movement and ongoing legal battles surrounding abortion access. During the protests surrounding upheavals on the Supreme Court, it was common to see female protesters dressed in the distinct garb from the “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Such protest has even spread to other countries.

The message is clear. People are worried that our society is inching closer to a world similar to the repressive gender politics of Gilead. I can certainly understand those concerns. While I’ve often criticized certain aspects of gender politics, I don’t deny the worry that many women feel about the current state of affairs.

That said, I believe the idea that the United States, or any western country for that matter, could descend into a state of gender apartheid like Gilead is absurd. While we should be concerned about the influence of religious extremism, even in the west, the chances of it ever gaining power on the level depicted in “The Handmaid’s Tale” is precisely zero.

Even if a regime like it came to power, it wouldn’t just fail quickly. It would collapse so spectacularly that it would be a joke on par with the Emu War. Gilead is not this all-encompassing, overwhelming power on par with Big Brother in George Orwell’s “1984.” Atwood even implied at the end of “The Handmaid’s Tale” that the regime was set to fall.

We’ve yet to hear that part of the story, but Atwood did announce that she’s working on a sequel. One way or another, Gilead’s days are numbered, even in the fanciful world that she created. Before then, I’d like to break down why the Republic of Gilead would be doomed if it ever attempted to set up shop in the real world.

If nothing else, I’d like to offer some perspective to those who fear that the state of gender politics is regressing. To those people, I share your concerns. However, I’m an optimist. I believe both feminists and men’s rights activists can and will find plenty of common ground on these issues in due time.

Even if they don’t, they can take comfort in knowing that Gilead, as both a philosophy and a system, is so flawed that dreading it is an exercise in hyperbole. There are still plenty of lessons to be learned from “The Handmaid’s Tale,” but in terms of setting up a competent theocratic regime, it’s a perfect check-list on what not to do.


Reason #1: Establishing Gilead Would Collapse The Economy

One of the first things the Sons of Jacob did when they established Gilead was fire every woman from their job and effectively eliminate their legal rights. On top of it being an exercise in brutal oppression, it removed half the labor force from the economy. In 2010, there were approximately 123 million women in the workforce. Firing every one of them wouldn’t just cause a huge recession. It would destroy the economy at every level.

Even the most ardent anti-feminist would be badly hurt by a world where half the GDP just disappeared. Suddenly, the industries that everybody relies on just cease functioning. Baking, health care, technology, and basic services essentially collapse as both the labor pool and the consumer base disappears.

That means from the very beginning, Gilead would have to navigate the worst economic collapse in history. More often than not, governments that cause collapses or fail to recover from them don’t last very long. Even if the Sons of Jacob found a way to blame it on minorities, feminists, or other religions, they would still be on the hook for fixing things and doing so with half the labor force will be difficult, to say the least.

Beyond the logistics, destroying an entire economy as part of a religious crusade is going to piss off some very powerful people who were thriving in the current system. America, alone, has over 500 billionaires whose massive wealth would be threatened by such a collapse. People with those kinds of resources aren’t going to let Gilead succeed, even if they manage to seize power.


Reason #2: Micromanaging Peoples’ Lives Is Impossible (In The Long Run)

I’ve noted before that fascist systems have many fundamental flaws. There’s a reason why some of the most brutal, authoritarian regimes in history still ended up collapsing. In the long run, they find out the hard way that it’s just impossible to effectively manage the lives their citizens.

The Republic of Gilead is a lot like Big Brother in that it takes micromanaging to a ridiculous extreme. It doesn’t just have its own secret police to enforce a rigid caste system. Much of its governing philosophy relies on ensuring people stick to their roles and never deviate. Women do what the state requires them to do without question. Men do the same, right down to how they structure their families.

That system only works if human beings are like machines who never get bored doing the same thing over and over again for their entire lives. Since human beings are not like that, there’s no way that kind of society can remain functional in the long run. The fact that the boredom of solitary confinement drives people crazy is proof enough of that.

It still gets worse than that. In every revolution, there’s often a period of heavy solidarity when the people rally behind the new regime as the beginning of a new Utopian vision. This happened in the Russian Revolution and during the Cultural Revolution in Communist China. Unfortunately for Gilead, it came to power by brute, terrorizing force.

That means this government coming to power isn’t the will of the people. It’s just plain bullying and people tend to resent that sort of thing. Even the Iran Revolution had the good sense to rally the people. The Republic of Gilead didn’t bother with that. It’s hard to imagine that collapsing the economy and subjugating half the population at gunpoint will make them many friends.


Reason #3: Theocracies Are The Least Stable Forms Of Autocracies

Remember when a purely theocratic state managed to prosper without being located atop an ocean of valuable oil? I don’t either and there’s a good reason for that. When it comes to repressive authoritarian states, theocracies are the worst possible choice. That’s because by entwining government with religion, it’s also entwining itself with the various flaws of religion.

Big Brother didn’t bother with religion in “1984.” It didn’t have to because religion, for all intents and purposes, was obsolete. The authority of the state and the authority of a deity was the same thing. The Republic of Gilead doesn’t have that luxury. Their politics and theology is based on an extremely conservative form of Christianity.

While that may seem fine to the Pat Robertson’s of the world, it adds a whole host of complications to the mix. The Sons of Jacob justify their repressive actions by appealing to Christianity and the bible. That’s okay if every single person in the entire republic agrees on one single interpretation of a religion and its holy text. Unfortunately, that has never occurred in the history of humanity.

There are dozens upon dozens of denominations in Christianity. There are also fringe cults, radical sects, and even schisms within those groups. At most, Gilead could have a unified theology at the beginning, but as new generations come along, that unity will collapse.

People will inevitably disagree. Every side will claim God is with them and everyone else are heretics. This sort of thing has been happening with religion for centuries. It won’t stop in Gilead. At some point, someone is going to think they heard God tell them something else and no one will be able to convince them otherwise. When that happens, conflict will ensue.

That sort of conflict can be managed in a more secular dictatorship. When government and religion are entwined, though, it’s much harder to work around. Even if Gilead could survive an economic collapse and the logistics of micromanaging peoples’ lives, it’s very unlikely it’ll survive the never-ending onslaught of religious debates.


Reason #4: Gilead Would Be An Easy Target For Invasion

Whether you’ve read the book or only watched the TV show, it’s hard to tell what sort of geopolitics the Republic of Gilead deals with. There are a few hints that there are other countries who did not descend into theocratic repression. There are even some cases of refugees in neighboring areas where women still have their rights.

The existence of those neighbors is yet another complication that ensures Gilead won’t last long, no matter how much its leaders pray. It already created a huge refugee crisis when it took over a sovereign government by force. At the same time, it handicapped itself by collapsing its economy and relegating half its population to serve as baby factories. It’s not just a source of chaos. It’s an easy target.

Neither the book nor the show reveals much about Gilead’s military capabilities. Even if we assume they get their hands on nuclear weapons, they’re still vulnerable because other countries have them too. More importantly, they know how to operate and maintain them. Religious zealots are good at a lot of things, but science isn’t one of them.

In the same way creationists aren’t likely to understand quantum mechanics, an entire government run by religious extremists aren’t likely to manage advanced weaponry. As time goes on, their emphasis of religion over reality will undermine their ability to develop such weapons. Their secular neighbors will have no such qualms.

Letting Gilead endure with its religious extremism and gender oppression means establishing a precedent that most other countries don’t want. Seeing one country fall to such a violent overthrow would be jarring enough. The first reaction to every nearby country would be to take steps to ensure it doesn’t happen to them. One of those steps could be overthrowing Gilead before one woman has to wear those goofy outfits.


Regardless of how you feel about “The Handmaid’s Tale” or where you stand in terms of gender politics, the book offers a powerful message. Like “1984,” it shows how bad things can get when extremism takes hold. Whether you’re a man, woman, or transgender, we have a lot more incentive to get along rather than fight one another. At the end of the day, that will ensure that Gilead remains nothing more than a flawed, fictional country.

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Addiction, Religion, And The Striking Similarities

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Battling addiction is a serious issue. Even if you haven’t struggled with it at some point in your life, there’s a good chance that you know someone who has. I’ve known more than a few. I’ve seen how damaging it can be to people and their families.

That makes the process for treating addiction just as critical. Unlike the flu or a nasty headache, it’s not as easy as simply getting a prescription and taking a few pills. Oftentimes, there are powerful psychological factors at work to go along with the equally-powerful biological factors. Finding an effective treatment is exceedingly difficult, especially in the midst of a deadly opioid crisis.

One of the greatest challenges for finding such treatments is ensuring that someone doesn’t just exchange one bad addiction for another. Even if some addictions aren’t as damaging as another, going from heroin to methadone is only a marginal improvement for many. There is, however, one secondary addiction that adds even more complications to the mix and it’s not a pill or a substance. It’s religion.

As always, I’m going to try and be careful with my words here. I know discussions involving religion tend to bring out a lot of high emotions. I’m also aware that whenever I discuss religion, I don’t portray it in a positive light. I make it a point to disclose that religion can be a positive force for many people and I have many devoutly religious people in my family who I love dearly.

That disclaimer aside, the forces surrounding organized religion are powerful and they can be misused. The history of such misuse is well-documented. It’s impact on treating addiction is less known, but does manifest. There have been more than a few celebrities who have become religious after a battle with addiction. Some are genuinely better because of it. However, that does raise a few questions.

Did their religion actually help them overcome their addiction?

Did their religion help them address the underlying factors behind their addiction?

Did their religion just become a replacement for whatever they’d been addicted to?

These questions may come off as cynical, but they have serious implications. Religion is a powerful force on some people. Whether you’re a true believer or an ardent atheist, it’s hard to deny the impact of such a force. Religious experiences have been documented to have measurable effects on the human brain. Some of those effects are comparable to addictive drugs.

That’s not to say that going to church and going to a heroin dealer are the same thing. Addiction is complex and so is brain function. At the same time, the human brain is prone to plenty of flaws. It can be easily tricked and people can even trick themselves. When it comes to addictions, you can’t expect your brain the know the difference between heroin and a religious experience.

There is even some research that demonstrates this to some extent. For people who once built their lives around their addiction, religion is a pretty effective replacement. It demands a great deal of money, time, and energy. It surrounds you with people who reinforce and reaffirm your beliefs and behavior. It can even give some people a very specific high.

That high just becomes the new addiction. That intense feeling that religion gives people suddenly becomes the feeling that addicts are so driven to pursue. It may not feel the same as an addict’s previous addiction, which is why they may not see it as such. That doesn’t matter, though. What matters is that it fills the proverbial void that the previous addiction once filled.

That’s why it shouldn’t be too surprising to find out that some famous addiction treatment programs have deeply religious roots. It also shouldn’t be that surprising when those who find religion after dealing with addiction tend to be quite passionate about their faith, compared to those who found religion through a different path.

Even if these programs help people, it still doesn’t answer the relevant questions surrounding their addiction. Exchanging one disease for another doesn’t constitute a cure, but people make an exception for religion. The idea of someone being addicted to a religion isn’t as easy to imagine as someone being addicted to cigarettes, gambling, or porn. To them, a religious addict is just someone who goes to church more often.

Some see that as a good thing. Compared to robbing gas stations for drug money, it is an improvement. However, it still leaves the underlying cause of the addiction untreated. Whatever is making someone an addict is still present. While I don’t doubt religious organizations are happy to accept their adherence, it doesn’t fundamentally change an addict’s condition.

That can be damaging and dangerous to people who are already vulnerable. In the worst case scenario, finding religion can only create the illusion that the addict has been cured. Society didn’t approve of them being a junkie on the street, but it does approve of them being a devout religious zealot who rails against the evils of their former vice.

That sends the message that society is selective when it comes to treating addicts. As long as their addiction is productive for society, in that it benefits established institutions, it’ll treat that as a cure. It doesn’t matter if it never helps someone get to the root of their problems. As long as it makes them productive, that’s good enough.

Again, I’m not claiming that most religious organizations actively exploit people struggling with addiction. Some definitely do and a few are quite famous for it. However, it’s somewhat telling that we ascribe finding religion to overcoming an addiction when, on many levels, it’s just exchanging one source of addictive behavior for another.

At its best, religion inspires people to do great things for all the right reasons. At its worst, it can exploit someone to such an extent that it can make people who are genuinely sick feel like they’re healed. Addiction, like many other disease, is something that can only get worse if left untreated.

Whether it’s religion or crack, the brain of an addict will do what it takes to sustain its addictive state. There are effective, legitimate treatments for addiction that actually attempt to confront the source of the issues within an addict. Many aren’t as easy or overwhelming as finding religion, but they make a concerted effort at treating the addict rather than simply guiding them to a more socially-acceptable addiction.

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The Secular Theology of “Lucifer” (The TV Show)

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What happens when you die?

Does our consciousness live on in some form?

Is there a way in which people who escaped punishment in life ultimately face it in death?

These are distressing, but profound questions that form the backbone of nearly every major religion. From the major Abrahamic faiths to the lore of ancient civilizations, there are many ways to approach this question. We all contemplate our mortality at some point and wonder/dread what will happen after our mortal bodies fail us.

Even some non-believers have mused about it at some point. Whereas religion tends to speculate wildly on the possibilities, an secular view of the afterlife isn’t too different from how it views deities. In the same way there’s no evidence for any gods or supernatural forces, there’s no evidence that consciousness exists outside the human brain.

That’s what makes the recently-canceled, but saved by Netflix show, “Lucifer,” such a compelling contributor to this age-old question. Beyond Tom Ellis flexing his uncanny charm, the show achieves something remarkable in how it approaches gods, angels, demons, and the afterlife. I would even go so far as to say that it crafts a theology that affirms secular values over those of any religion.

By that, I don’t mean that “Lucifer” glorifies atheism or non-religious worldviews. If anything, one the show’s common themes is that glorifying any worldview is pointless. It’s surprisingly balanced in how it portrays religious and non-religious characters. The show contains respectable believers like Father Frank Lawrence and deplorable non-believers like Jimmy Barnes.

When it comes to addressing those age-old questions about deities, the afterlife, and morality, though, the show crafts a mythos that doesn’t play favorites. In the world of “Lucifer,” it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Christian, Muslim, Scientologist, Buddhist, or Pastafarian. Your life and your afterlife are subject to the same standards.

To understand those standards, it’s necessary to understand the influences of the show. Before Tom Ellis put on an Armani suit, the story of Lucifer Morningstar emerged in a the critically-acclaimed graphic novel, “The Sandman.” Even if you’re not a comic book fan, I highly recommend this book. There’s a good reason why it’s in Entertainment Weekly’s 100 best reads from 1983 to 2008.

While there are many differences between this comic and the TV show, the core tenants are the same. Lucifer Morningstar once ruled Hell, but decided to abandon that role and set up shop in the mortal world. Much like Tom Ellis’ character in the show, this version of Lucifer resents the stereotypes and misunderstandings surrounding him.

He’s not the source of all evil. He’s not the Lord of Lies, either. In fact, Lucifer has his own personal code of conduct and chief among that code is not lying. It goes beyond just telling the truth, though. Lucifer doesn’t sugarcoat anything, nor does he tell only part of the story. He tells the truth in the clearest, harshest way possible.

The show captures many of these elements. In the first episode when he meets Detective Chole Decker, he says outright who he is and isn’t coy about it. While she doesn’t believe he’s the actual devil, he sets a similar tone in how wields the truth. He’s not afraid to shove it in peoples’ faces and let horrifying realizations do the rest.

That emphasis on hard truth, both in the show and the comics, closely mirrors a secular approach to reality. It doesn’t matter how strongly you believe or don’t believe in something. The truth doesn’t change. People can spend their entire lives avoiding it, making excuses or crafting elaborate mythologies.

Whether someone identifies as atheist or agnostic, the premise is the same. If there’s no verifiable evidence, then you can’t say something is true. That leaves a lot of uncertainty about the nature of life, the afterlife, and everything in between. For many people, that’s just untenable and that leads to all sorts of contemplation and speculations.

It only gets worse when there’s considerable evidence to the contrary, which those who cross Lucifer often learn the hard way. While the comics touch on this to a limited extent, the show is much more overt. It often occurs when Lucifer flashes his true form to others. Most of the time, their reaction is one of unmitigated horror and understandably so.

These people, whether they’re cold-blooded killers or schoolyard bullies, just got a massive dose of exceedingly heavy truth. They just learned that the devil is real. Hell is real. Angels, demons, and deities are real. That also means it’s very likely that there’s some form of life after death. For those who have done bad things, that’s a genuinely terrifying prospect.

The details of that terror are explored throughout the show, especially in the first and second season. It’s here where the show distances itself from the fire and brimstone of the Abrahamic faiths. It even differs considerably from the hellish visions of Eastern religious tradition. To some extent, it takes the ethical concepts of secular humanism and crafts a prison around it.

That prison doesn’t involve pitchforks, fire, or monsters who chew on the souls of history’s greatest traitors. In the divine world of “Lucifer,” Hell is dark domain in which the souls of sinful mortals are punished for the misdeeds they committed in life. How that punishment plays out varies from soul to soul.

In the first season, Malcolm Graham spends a brief time in Hell, relatively speaking. He describes it as a place that takes everything someone loves and uses it to torment them. In his case, he freely admits that he loves life. As such, he is starved and isolated so that he cannot experience it or its many joys. It’s an extreme form of solitary confinement, which is very much a form of torture.

On top of that, time flows differently in Hell. Even though Malcolm wasn’t there for very long, he conceded that 30 seconds felt like 30 years. That doesn’t necessarily mean it moves slower, though. Time is simply a tool with which to ensure the effectiveness of the punishment. Lucifer, himself, finds this out in Season 2, Episode 13, “A Good Day To Die.”

For him, time becomes an endless loop of sorts. In that domain, he continually relieves the moment he kills his brother Uriel, one of the few acts in which Lucifer feels genuine regret. It keeps on happening again and again, evoking the same anguish. It’s like the movie “Groundhog Day,” but one in which people constantly relieve the worst day of their life.

These kinds of punishments are certainly worthy of Hell. They’re harsh in that they’re customized torture that’s specific for every damned soul. It’s a lot more flexible than the elaborate Hellscape described in “Dante’s Inferno.” However, there’s one important aspect to this punishment that puts it into a unique context.

The specifics are revealed in Season 3, Episode 7, “Off The Record.” Lucifer reveals to Reese Getty that the devil isn’t the one who decides which souls end up in Hell. No deity decides that, either. Ultimately, it’s the individual who makes that decision, albeit indirectly.

When humans transgress in the world of “Lucifer,” there’s no cosmic judge keeping track of their misdeeds. What sends them to Hell is the weight of their own guilt. Even when they pretend they don’t feel it, like Malcolm Graham, it’s still there. They’re just ignoring it or avoiding it. When they die, though, it ultimately comes back to weigh them down.

This means that punishment in Hell isn’t technically eternal, which I’ve noted is critical if the concept is to have any meaning whatsoever. Lucifer even says in the same episode that there’s no demon army guarding the gates of Hell. The doors are opened and unlocked. Those damned souls are free to leave, but they never do. It’s their own choices, guilt, and regret that keeps them damned.

That means the deeds that send people to hell are subjective and contextual. It’s an outright rejection of the universal morality that many religious traditions favor and an affirmation of the more nuanced ethics espoused by secular humanism. Both the morality and the theology of “Lucifer” depends heavily on the situation, intent, and consequences of someone’s action.

In the world of “Lucifer,” a priest and a porn star can both go to Heaven. It’s strongly implied that Father Frank Lawrence went to Heaven after his heroic actions in “A Priest Walks Into A Bar.” It’s also implied in “City Of Angels?” that there’s a distinct lack of porn stars in Hell due to all the good works and joy they bring to people in life.

At its core, “Lucifer” frames damnation as an underlying consequence of individual actions. Everything begins and ends with the individual. What they do, why they do it, and the consequences they incur are primary criteria for how souls spend their afterlife. In both the comics and the TV show, Lucifer is a champion of individual choices and all the implications that come with it.

This emphasis on the individual effectively tempers the influence of any deity or supernatural force. Even though gods and angels exist in the world of “Lucifer,” they don’t make choices for anybody. Granted, they can have major influences, as shown in episodes like “Once Upon A Time.” At the end of the day, it’s still the individual who is ultimately responsible.

This secular approach to theology works because individual actions are the only deeds we can truly quantify. It creates criteria under which neither atheists nor believers have any clear advantages. How they live their lives and how they go about making choices is what determines whether they face punishment after death.

It still has some problems that the show has yet to address. It doesn’t indicate how Hell handles people who are incapable of feeling guilt or otherwise mentally ill. It also doesn’t reveal how Heaven differs from Hell, although Lucifer implied to Father Frank that it’s more boring than Hell. Hopefully, that’s just one of many other themes that get touched on in Season 4.

Whatever the flaws, the unique take on theology and morality give “Lucifer” a special appeal for both believers and non-believers. It presents a world where those profound questions I asked earlier have answers. No one religion got it right and atheists aren’t at a disadvantage for not believing. That may not sit well with some, but it affirms a brand of secular justice that judges every individual by the choices they make.

More than anything else, Lucifer Morningstar is a champion of deep desires and hard truths. He opposes anyone who tries to dictate someone’s decision or fate, be they a devil or a deity. People who do bad things are ultimately punished, but not by him. In the end, he really doesn’t have to. An individual is more than capable of creating their own personal Hell.

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Rise Of The Phony Nihilists

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A while back, a relative of mine told a story about a college professor and a smart-ass student. The student claimed he was a hardcore nihilist. He genuinely believed that there was no inherent purpose to humanity, life, or the universe. His professor didn’t respond at first. However, that didn’t stop him from making a point and sending a message.

Shortly after that initial encounter, the professor handed out grades on the first paper. He gave the self-professed nihilist a zero. When the student protested the grade, the professor just shrugged and reminded him that he was a nihilist. If he thought nothing mattered, then why should he care about his grades?

Regardless of whether this story is true, it makes an interesting point. That professor, who I suspect a PHD in trolling, exposed his arrogant student’s hypocrisy. He claimed to be a nihilist, but he still cared about his grades. He may have overestimated the extent of his nihilism, but the professor proved it only went so far.

It’s a lesson that’s a lot more relevant today because nihilism, in general, has become oddly fashionable. We have popular TV shows like “Rick and Morty,” “True Detective,” and “Bojack Horseman” that each espouse a certain degree of nihilistic philosophy. Iconic villains like Heath Ledger’s Joker in “The Dark Knight” also embody the random chaos that often reflects the chaos of a nihilistic worldview.

As much as I love the “The Dark Knight” and “Rick and Morty,” including its unique approach to exploring nihilism, there are serious issues with applying their philosophy to real life. These are fictional characters unbound by the logistics and consequences of real life. Nobody could reasonably do what they do and get the same result. We already have enough scary clowns committing crimes.

That hasn’t stopped some people from taking those complex philosophical concepts more seriously than most. It also happens to complement the ongoing rise of trolling, both on the internet and in real life. That makes sense because the mentality of a troll has to be nihilistic to some extent. When your goal is to cross lines and demean people for the thrill of it, you can’t be too concerned with greater meaning.

That’s not to say there aren’t trolls who are genuine sadists. I’ve encountered more than a few who would qualify. For the most part, though, nihilism is an excuse rather than a motivation. Some pretend they just want to watch the world burn when they say something that’s horribly offensive or laughably absurd. They’re just trying and failing to be as charismatic as Heath Ledger’s Joker.

It’s a phony brand of nihilism and one that defeats itself when you apply the slightest bit of scrutiny. It often leads to empty arguments on otherwise serious issues. It usually breaks down like this.

Someone will say something absurd, wrong, or just flat out offensive.

Someone else calls them out on it.

An argument ensues that usually involves an escalating amount of hatred, insults, and frustration.

Ultimately, the person who made the triggering remark claims they’re just in it for the kicks, the cheap thrills, and to taste the tears of their enemies.

In the end, they try to come off as this enlightened, above-it-all intellectual who has somehow transcended the petty arguments that the non-nihilists of the world keep having. They pretend they’re above it all or just don’t care. Again, it’s an excuse. They’re not full-on nihilists in the traditions of Rick Sanchez or Friedrich Nietzsche. They’re just assholes trying to hide from the fact that they’re assholes.

These same people who claim to care nothing about the greater meaning of the universe rarely practice what they so poorly preach. They still pay their taxes. They still work jobs that they probably hate to make money so that they can function in this undeniably flawed society we live in. If they were truly nihilists, they wouldn’t see the point in any of that.

If they got sick, they wouldn’t go to a doctor to get better. What’s the point?

If they lost all their money, they wouldn’t worry. What’s the point?

If their lives were utterly ruined by their behavior, they wouldn’t complain about it. What’s the point?

The phony nihilists pretend they can be Rick Sanchez or Heath Ledger’s Joker. However, they never come close to turning themselves into a pickle or setting fire to a giant pile of money. Those are things that a hardcore nihilist would do and they wouldn’t bother arguing about it. Again, and this is the question that phony nihilists avoid answering, what’s the point?

More and more, nihilism is being used less as a philosophy and more as a rhetorical tactic from trolls. In an era where it’s easy to troll and people are extremely divided, I understand why this brand of phony nihilism is emerging. I can even see why it has an appeal. It allows people to skip the part where they have to justify their beliefs or take responsibility for the actions. It’s more about convenience than conviction.

I don’t expect the trend of phony nihilism to stop anytime soon. If anything, it’s going to intensify as the world becomes increasingly complex on every level. There are over 7.7 billion people on this planet and it’s getting exceedingly difficult to feel like you matter in such a world. Falling into a nihilist trap is easy and even comforting for some.

It’s still not an excuse to be an asshole. Even if you think nothing truly matters and we’re all just globs of matter waiting for the heat death of the universe, you’re alive in this world with billions of other people trying to find their place in it. Being an asshole, whether it’s out of nihilism or some other philosophy, is never justified.

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Chris Pratt, Religious Celebrities, And Why We Should Be Concerned

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In general, celebrities operate on an entirely different level of reality than non-celebrities. Their concept of normal is so skewed, so distorted, and so out of touch that it’s hard to relate to them. Just read up on the weird things Gwyneth Paltrow has said in recent years for proof of that.

Even if they are out of touch, it is possible for celebrities to be genuinely decent people and succeed in an industry known for horrendous corruption. Some celebrities do work that legitimately makes the world a better place. By most measures, Chris Pratt of “Parks and Recreation” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” fame is one of them.

I consider myself a fan of his. Mr. Pratt has done many things that have won him the respect and admiration of many. Just read the stories about him visited children’s hospitals and try not to like him. While he has undergone some unfortunate upheavals in recent years after his divorce from actress Anna Farris, he has generally managed himself well in the world of celebrity culture.

However, recent events surrounding Mr. Pratt may be cause for concern. While I doubt he’s heading towards the kind of celebrity meltdowns that have doomed others, I think there is reason to worry about the effects that continued fame, celebrity, and wealth will have on him. That’s because those effects may be compounded by another huge complication, namely that of organized religion.

While Mr. Pratt has not hidden the fact that he’s religious, it recently became an issue when Ellen Page, a noted LBGT activist, called him out for attending a church that has a history of anti-gay rhetoric. Now, as someone who has levied plenty of criticism about religion before, I generally support pointing out the injustices and absurdities of religion. In this case, I’m surprised by the backlash.

In general, Ms. Page was subject to significant attacks for her criticism. She was made out to be the bully here and she’s someone who was subject to deplorable treatment by the director who botched X3. In general, people are siding with Mr. Pratt, saying that Ms. Page was out of line for criticizing him for the church he attended.

Personally, I don’t think Ms. Page went about her criticism the right way. Given the horrendous attacks religious organizations have orchestrated against the LGBT community, I don’t blame her for being vocal. This incident, however, and the way Mr. Pratt responded to it leaves me concerned about the cumulative impact that celebrity and religion will have on him.

To understand the extent of those concerns, you need look no further than another famous Hollywood actor who was also respected, popular, and religious. That actor is Mel Gibson. Today, he’s more a joke and an internet meme. However, it wasn’t that long ago when he was Hollywood’s golden boy.

Like Mr. Pratt now, Mel Gibson a successful action star who could also do comedy and drama. For a time, he was the actor many women in and outside of Hollywood swooned over. I know because at one point, my mother admitted to having a major crush on him and having seen some of his old movies, I honestly can’t blame her.

While Mr. Gibson didn’t make a big deal of his religion for the most part, it did rear its influence when he went through his infamous meltdown in 2006. Even after he apologized for that incident, his streak of making anti-Semitic comments has become somewhat normal. As a result, his once-impeccable reputation is a distant memory.

That’s not a fate that anyone deserves, especially Mr. Pratt. Now, I would argue that he’s in a better position than Mr. Gibson was. The various stories surrounding him and the people who work with him paint him as someone who manages himself very well. I would be genuinely surprised if Mr. Pratt ever underwent a similar meltdown.

That said, there is still a distressing history of religion having a less-than-beneficial impact on celebrities. Whether it’s Kirk Cameron encouraging people to not use their critical thinking skills in the name of Christianity or Tom Cruise bashing psychiatry in the name of Scientology, religion can turn respectable celebrities into an embodiment of perverse religious dogma.

In certain circumstances, they can even help compound that dogma. Celebrities already wield more influence than most priests, mullahs, monks, or rabbis. Religious organizations have a strong incentive to cater to and hold onto celebrity adherents. That way when these celebrities say something about their religion, people are more inclined to listen.

Some celebrities do this willingly and freely. Others are guided towards it. It’s well-documented that Tom Cruise gets special treatment in the Church of Scientology. While we don’t know if Mr. Pratt’s church does something similar for him, they certainly have a reason to do whatever they need to do for him to maintain his support and his money, by default.

At the moment, Mr. Pratt’s church is not on the same level as Scientology or even the Catholic Church. By most measures, it’s a fairly standard conservative Christian church that holds positions that won’t surprise anyone who know anything about religiously-motivated morality. It still holds questionable beliefs and wields more influence than most local churches.

Depending on how Mr. Pratt manages that influence, he could either keep his religious affairs private or go down the path of someone like Kirk Cameron, celebrities whose excessive religiosity hinders their respectability. On top of that, it could lead to him starring in some exceedingly awful movies.

The worst case scenario for Mr. Pratt would be something on the level of Mel Gibson, a meltdown that permanently taints his once-golden image as a likable pretty boy who visits children’s hospitals. I don’t think he deserves that. No celebrity deserves a downfall like that, but religion does tend to make that slope a little steeper.

I haven’t met Chris Pratt and I probably never will, but based on what is publicly known, he’s a good man who has done plenty to deserve our respect. Religion, for the most part, doesn’t change that. However, when taken to extremes, as some celebrities have shown, it can reveal just how corrosive certain dogma can be to otherwise decent people.

As Stephen Weinberg once said of religion, “With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” Mr. Pratt is a good person and it would be nothing short of tragic if his sincerely held faith did something to undermine that. Even if you don’t agree with Ms. Page for calling him out, her concerns are still valid.

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