Tag Archives: theology

Superman, All-Powerful Gods, And What Sets Them Apart

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Superheroes mean many things to many people, especially at a time when superhero movies routinely dominate the box office. For some, they’re just gimmicks, fads, and marketing tools by big media companies. For others, they are akin to modern day mythology. It’s an apt comparison. Even contemporary heroes have a lot in common with the mythological legends of the past.

Some take it even further than that. Some will go so far as to claim that superheroes are filling the same roles as gods and deities. It’s not just the ones based on Norse or Greek mythology, either. In many respects, many iconic heroes fit many of the common traits ascribed to gods.

Superman is all-good.

Thanos wielding the Infinity Gauntlet is all-powerful.

Lex Luthor, Dr. Doom, and even Mr. Fantastic are so smart that they might as well be all-knowing to most people.

Such divine, god-like feats make for iconic stories that offer lessons and insights on everything from morality to justice to society, at large. While superheroes aren’t worshiped within organized institutions or granted tax-exempt status by governments, they utilize a similar structure to that of other holy texts.

The narrative surrounding superheroes revolves around good, evil, and the struggles that occur in between. Both the good and the evil in these stories takes the form of some grand, larger-than-life character who embodies these traits and implements them on a level that’s impossible for ordinary people to comprehend. That’s what helps make the message so powerful.

However, it’s the qualities that set superheroes apart from deities that offers the most insights. I would even argue those insights are more critical now than they were before Superman, Batman, or Iron Man ever showed up on a movie screen. At a time when organized religion continues to exert immense influence on society, we should be scrutinizing these discrepancies.

I hope it goes without saying that modern superheroes can only do so much to compare with the deities of organized religion. No matter how much money “Avengers Endgamemade at the box office, it will never exert the same influence that the three main Abrahamic faiths have imparted over the two millennia. For better or for worse, history, politics, and the entire species has been influenced by these religions.

The most notable and obvious difference between them and superheroes is that the deities of religion aren’t presented as entertaining fiction. To the believers of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and many other religions, the deities and the characters in their holy texts are real. They’re not myths or legends. They’re real people and real forces that have real effects.

Regardless of how true that is, and I know atheists will point out how none of those effects can be verified, this is the critical difference between superheroes and deities. Adherents don’t just believe that these characters are real. They place their trust and faith in them, believing that doing so will guide them in life and protect them in death.

I understood this difference as a kid. I was both a fan of superhero comics and surrounded by relatives who were devout believers. I knew they didn’t see their holy texts the same way I saw Superman comics. Superman was just another character. They knew who created him. They knew he was a licensed fictional character from DC Comics.

However, even back then, I found myself wondering whether those same relatives would see Superman differently if they didn’t know he was a comic book character. I imagine if there were old stories about him from centuries ago, written as though they actually happened, they might be less inclined to discount him as fiction. Some might actually be more inclined to place their faith in him over other deities.

It’s an interesting thought experiment, but it only scratches the surface of what sets superheroes apart from ancient lore. Aside from how real people think these characters are, and some take it much further than others, the standard superhero narrative reveals something striking about the standard religious narrative.

To illustrate, take a moment to contemplate how Superman goes about being a hero. As the gold standard of superheroes for the past 80 years, he sets the highest bar and embodies the highest ideals for a hero. On top of that, he has powers and abilities on par with many deities. At times, he has been shown as capable of destroying an entire solar system with a single sneeze.

Despite all this power, Superman seeks only to help humanity. He doesn’t ask for praise, worship, payment, or sacrifice. He simply does it because it’s the right thing to do. He’s the ultimate paragon, selfless and compassionate to the utmost. The people of Metropolis, and the world at large, don’t need to have faith in him. They just need to trust that he’ll keep doing the right thing.

Contrast that with the deities in holy texts. Many are every bit as powerful as Superman, but display qualities that aren’t exactly heroic. Certain versions of certain deities have been shown to be petty, jealous, and vindictive, sometimes to an extreme. A deity does often help or guide believers in a conflict like a superhero, but it’s rarely done out of pure altruism.

These deities, many of which are believed to have created humanity and the world, exercise a certain level of authority over people. It’s not always outright forced, but the nature of the story provides plenty of incentives and/or punishments to those who rebel or subvert that authority. Some become cautionary tales or outright villains.

Some villains are sexier than others.

In this context, the religious narrative builds an over-arching theme that has little room for heroics. These deities and super-powered beings aren’t necessarily there to save the day. They’re there to maintain the order that they helped create. They function as the glue that holds the universe and humanity together. Anyone or anything that goes against it requires recourse from both adherents and divine forces.

We often see this manifest in the real world when religious people argue that things like homosexuality, which is often condemned in holy books, are this bigger threat to the world. That’s why you’ll hear plenty of dogmatic preachers claim that homosexuality won’t just give people distressing thoughts. They’ll say it will destroy society.

Religious dogma, by its nature, depends on a strict adherence to what is the status quo for a particular place, people, and time. Defending it isn’t just seen as an act of piety. It’s akin to a superhero saving the day from evil forces. Whether those evil forces are demons from the underworld or a gay couple who want to get married doesn’t matter. It’s all about preserving a system.

Conversely, superheroes like Superman don’t limit themselves to a status quo. They’re less driven about how things are and more focused on how things could be. Superman doesn’t just want to save the day and help people who need it. He seeks to give people an ideal for them to aspire towards. This is perfectly reflected in his father’s message to him, as read by the late Marlon Brando.

It is now time for you to rejoin your new world and to serve its collective humanity.
Live as one of them, Kal-El
Discover where you strength and your power are needed
Always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage
They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be
They only lack the light to show the way
For this reason above all, their capacity for good
I have sent them you, my only son

It’s in this defining message that the superhero narrative distinguishes itself from religious traditions. These superheroes, as powerful as they are, didn’t create us. They don’t hold any inherent dominion over us. They didn’t create the current situation, however flawed it might be. They still seek to help people, carrying out feats that others cannot. That’s what makes them heroes.

One fights to maintain what society is while the other fights for what society could be. These narratives can exist alongside one another and can carry greater meaning for certain people. There are critical lessons in both, but I believe the lessons of Superman are more relevant than anything offered by the stories of religion.

For much of human history, organized religion was part of that social glue that helped keep society stable. For a good deal of that history, society was only as stable as the conditions around it. People hoped and prayed that there wouldn’t be a famine, a storm, or some other catastrophe that they could not control. Survival, even among kings and emperors, was their primary concern.

Things are different now. At a time when food is abundant, poverty is in decline, and education is more widespread than ever, survival isn’t enough. For a planet of billions to thrive, people need to prosper. Doing so means aspiring to something greater than the status quo. That’s exactly what superheroes embody.

That’s not to say that the rise of superheroes is directly linked to the ongoing decline of religion, but the contrasting narratives reflect just how much priorities have changed. Superheroes don’t demand faith, sacrifice, and reverence, just to keep things as they are. They go out of their way to save a world that they believe is worth saving, hoping that it can better itself.

They can help, but they can’t do it for us. That’s another trait that Superman demonstrates, much to the chagrin of villains like Lex Luthor. Like deities of old, he doesn’t use his powers to achieve everything for humanity. He seeks to empower them to achieve those feats on their own. That process of aspiring to be greater than is often an affront to a religious narrative, but critical to the themes of superheroes.

Even if superhero movies stop making billions at the box office, the over-arching message will still be relevant. Faith in what is just isn’t as appealing as hope for what can be. The gods of religion offer comfort in familiar order, but superheroes can inspire hope in something better. Given the many flaws in this chaotic world, I believe that hope is more valuable than any ancient doctrine.

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Why Organized Religion Opposes Assisted Suicide (For The Wrong Reasons)

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Most people under the age of 40 are too young to remember the controversy surrounding Dr. Jack Kevorkian, also known as “Dr. Death.” For a time, he was one of the most polarizing figures in the world because he made assisted suicide a major socio-political issue. From 1989 to 1998, he took part in approximately 130 assisted suicides. It’s because of him that every state has a law regarding the practice.

Before I go any further into this very sensitive, exceedingly emotional issue, I want to make one thing clear. I don’t have a strong position on assisted suicide. I’ve had a hard time arguing in either direction. On one hand, I can understand someone in chronic pain wanting to end their life. On the other, I also worry that making such a practice mundane could undermine efforts to treat debilitating conditions.

I have people in my family who have fought debilitating illnesses. Some have lost those fights. Others won out and are stronger because of it. I believe that if you had talked to them on a particularly bad day, they might have seriously considered assisted suicide as an option. It’s a heart-wrenching issue that I’m not qualified to debate.

Despite those qualifications, I believe I’m still capable of scrutinizing certain aspects of the debate. Reasonable people can make reasonable arguments for and against assisted suicide. I’ll leave that part of the debate to people smarter and more informed than me. For the bad arguments made by unreasonable people, however, I think I’m as qualified as anyone.

One of the most vocal opponents of assisted suicide come from organized religion, especially the Catholic Church. Their position is fairly clear. Suicide is an egregious sin and a crime against human dignity. Even if you’re in debilitating pain, it’s not your place to take your own life. Only the all-powerful, all-knowing deity of their faith can do that. Some go so far as to claim that suicide automatically condemns a soul to Hell.

Setting aside, for a moment, the kind of theology that would condemn suffering people to more suffering in the afterlife, it’s worth taking a step back to ask why assisted suicide is an issue for organized religion in the first place. What interest could any religion have for getting involved in such an immensely personal issue?

To answer that question, it’s also necessary to distinguish between organized religion and the personal faith that people have. Your personal faith is personal. It’s between you and your loved ones. When religions get organized, they become impersonal and subject to different influences. As demonstrated by corporations or governments, those influences aren’t always holy, to say the least.

An organized religion, be it a huge institution like the Catholic Church or just a small denomination of churches, temples, and mosques, are driven by the same incentives. They need money, adherents, labor, and support from as many followers as possible. How they go about obtaining those resources varies from faith to faith. When it comes to maintaining those assets, however, things get less varied.

I’ve noted before how religious institutions have used dogma to maintain and reinforce social inequality. Any institution, religious or not, has a strong incentive to keep its followers in a state of ignorance, poverty, and dependence. It also can’t have too many people questioning the dogma, nor can it have people with enough resources or comforts to function without its help.

With religion, those incentives are easier to codify because it can claim that their doctrine doesn’t come from law, money, or brute force. It’s ordained by a powerful deity that is on their side. People can argue against politicians, protest greedy businesses, and question long-standing traditions. They can only do so much against a powerful, invisible deity.

It’s within this context that organized religion clashes with assisted suicide. Like with inequality, assisted suicide directly undermines the manpower and resources of religious institutions. It doesn’t just take from them an adherent or a potential convert. It strikes at the foundation on which organized religion builds its influence on people.

In the same way that a business needs customers with money to spend on their goods, organized religion needs people who feel deficient, impoverished, or desperate. It’s a well-documented phenomenon. Those who are poor, hungry, and suffering tend to gravitate towards organized religion.

Sometimes, this is a good thing because there are religious organizations out there who provide food, comfort, and care. Even if doing so acts as an indirect way to recruit adherents, it still provides tangible help to people who need it. That’s an aspect of organized religion that deserves respect. When it comes to suffering and dying, however, the practices aren’t nearly as commendable.

When people are dealing with a suffering loved one, it’s incredible difficult. It takes an emotional toll on both the individual and their family. It’s heart-breaking on so many levels. It’s also an unscrupulous opportunity for organized religion.

While they won’t outright prey on someone else’s suffering, they’ll often act as a source of relief and comfort. They’ll try to act as a shoulder to cry on, telling both the person suffering and their families everything they want to hear. It earns them points from both them and the larger community. They can claim they’re helping a suffering family, but without actually helping them.

They stop short of paying for an expensive, life-saving procedure. They’ll also stop short of paying medical bills that might have piled up. They’ll sometimes promise to promote scientific research to treat whatever is causing so much pain, but in terms of over-arching incentives, that makes sense in the context that any organization wants to keep its adherents alive.

When assisted suicide enters the equation, the religious organizations miss out on that opportunity. Instead of comfort from a priest, mullah, rabbi, or monk, those suffering can get relief from a simple medical procedure. Their family can also enjoy a sense of closure in that their loved one isn’t suffering anymore. No religious influence is necessary here.

For some, that’s not just a problem. That’s a threat. Anything that subverts the need for the religious organization undermines its ability to maintain and grow its influence. Assisted suicide does all that and then some. However, it goes beyond simply not having the chance to endear themselves to sick people and their families.

From their perspective, assisted suicide sets a dangerous precedent. If too many poor, desperate, suffering people start killing themselves to escape, then they lose one of their best sources of new adherents. It’s the same reason why they discourage abortion and contraception, hoping that adherents produce more adherents for the organization. It all comes back to maintaining and growing the institution.

That usually isn’t the stated purpose. Almost every major religion that discourages assisted suicide will argue from a moral perspective. However, the indirect effect is certainly there. That’s not to say that the heads of these religious organizations secretly meet in dark rooms and craft their dogma with these factors in mind. It’s simply a byproduct of large groups of people responding to incentives.

Even if the implications of opposing assisted suicide are indirect, it’s still not a good reason to oppose the practice. It requires that people overlook the suffering and pain of others while convincing them that they don’t have the right to make important choices in their lives. That effort only leads to more suffering and that can never be justified, no matter how much dogma is applied.

As always, I want to make clear that I’m not calling all religious organizations malicious for opposing assisted suicide. I don’t believe that those within these organizations are out to cause more suffering. Most believe, in their heart of hearts, that they’re doing the right thing. The problem is that dogma, doctrine, and powerful incentives can overshadow those efforts.

There are good, legitimate reasons to oppose assisted suicide. Unfortunately, organized religion rarely relies on those reasons. On top of that, they have one too many incentives not to focus on those reasons.

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The Lying God Paradox: An Inherent Flaw Of All-Powerful Deities

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In general, I believe that arguing with religious people is a waste of time. While I’ve made no secret of my distaste for organized religion, I prefer not to discuss it. As I’ve noted before, I have people in my family who are deeply religious. They are wonderful, loving people and they get genuine fulfillment from their religion.

There was even a time in my youth when I went out of my way to debate religion. At one point, I genuinely believed I could convince people of the absurdities of religious dogma. That was before I learned just how strong these beliefs can be and how far people will go to hold onto them.

I now accept that there’s no argument I can make or fact I can list that would ever convince someone that their religion is wrong. For the most part, people have to change their own minds. The most you can do is get them thinking about their dogma and let them make up their own mind.

For that reason, I still find it helpful to share my thoughts on certain aspects of religion. It’s not always possible to engage in meaningful discussions, but I think it’s worth pursuing. I find that the more you connect with people who don’t necessarily agree with you, the more you humanize them and vice versa.

That being said, I have a feeling that this latest thought is not going to win me many friends from the religious crowd. I know this because I’m about to make a statement about gods, all-powerful deities, and an inherent flaw that comes with incorporating them into any theology. That would encompass the three major Abrahamic faiths, as well as most other monotheistic religions.

This statement is a simple explanation for why there are so many different religions, each of which can have many denominations and sects. It also assumes there is an all-powerful deity with the ability to effect human affairs. While I know that’s a lofty assumption, especially for the non-believing crowd, it still exposes an important flaw in the theology and dogma behind religion. It can be summed up in two simple words.

God lied.

I know that idea may make many believers recoil in disgust, but I urge those people to take a moment to contemplate the implications. We’re not talking about a miracle or some divine act that breaks the laws of physics. This is something that ordinary people do every day without the need for immense power. If simple mortals like us can do it, then why can’t an all-powerful deity?

An all-powerful being can literally do anything. Lying would be one of the easiest, least strenuous ways to effect change, especially among a species like ours that is prone to believing lies. On top of that, when you take a step back and look at how religion has manifested over the centuries, a lying deity makes more sense than any other deity.

It explains why there has never been a single, unified religion.

It explains why there has never been a concept of divinity that every human society shares.

It explains why there are so many different religious texts that vary considerably in terms of theology, morality, and practices.

Simply put, God lied to everyone. Whether by prophecy, revelation, or divine inspiration, it was all a lie. It wouldn’t even have to be an elaborate lie. An all-powerful deity could just present the ideas to a few select people in history and let them do the rest. If the goal of the deity was to create a wide variety of religious dogma, then that’s working smart rather than hard.

The fact that it helps make sense of all the disagreements and discords within religion also creates a paradox, of sorts. Religion, by its nature, is built around belief. Peoples entire understanding of gods, spirits, and the supernatural are contingent on how ardently they believe in a particular theology. However, if that understanding is built on lies, then the entire religion is a product of an inherent untruth.

It’s a distressing thought, the notion that such a powerful being could or would willingly lie. That’s why most believers of any faith usually scoff at the notion. They’ll often claim their deity cannot lie because their deity is all-good on top of being all-powerful. Even if their holy text contains some objectively terrible atrocities that a deity committed or condoned, they’ll still make the claim that their deity is inherently good.

However, that only exchanges one paradox for another. If a deity is all-powerful, then that means the deity can do anything by definition, regardless of whether it’s good or evil. If a deity is all good, then that means it is incapable of doing anything evil. As such, it cannot be all-powerful. A deity that can only do good simply cannot be all-powerful, by default.

A lying deity resolves both paradoxes. The ability to lie, whether it’s for good or for evil, is perfectly within the capabilities of an all-powerful being. Even if that deity is all-good, then perhaps it can still lie, but only for good reasons, which do exist. That deity just can’t be all-powerful.

Even with these paradoxes, I doubt adherents of a particular faith would accept the possibility that their deity ever lied to them, their ancestors, or their fellow believers. They may accept that lesser or evil deities lie to others who don’t share their beliefs. However, those same people could make the same claim about them and there would be no difference, in terms of merit.

Non-believers will often cite the vast diversity of religious beliefs, both today and throughout history. They all can’t be right, but they all can be wrong. That’s perfectly in line with the law of non-contradiction.

That won’t stop believers from arguing passionately that they have the right answer to these profound questions. Even if they don’t have a way of verifying that belief, they’ll still believe in what they see is divine truth. However, the paradox of a lying god further complicates that idea.

Even if there is an all-powerful deity that has interacted in human affairs, how does anyone know whether said deity lied? Being all-powerful, the deity wouldn’t even need a reason. Lying would just be another exercise of that power. In that case, a lying deity is indistinguishable from a non-existent one. Logistically, there’s no way to verify either.

I know making this claim isn’t going to win many arguments with the devoutly religious. I don’t doubt that even suggesting that their god is liar has offended some people. I understand that. At the same time, I think it’s an idea worth scrutinizing. Just contemplating the possibility that a deity has lied adds what I believe is a necessary wrinkle to religious dogma.

Religion is such a powerful force in peoples’ lives. For better or for worse, it guides society, politics, and culture all over the world. People believe what they believe with great passion and piety. Nobody wants to entertain the notion that such a big part of their life is based on a lie. For something this powerful, though, I believe it’s worth thinking about.

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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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Why Sadism Is Necessary For Both Heaven And Hell

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Imagine there’s this big, beautiful house on the top of a hill. It’s opulent, luxurious, and full of every comfort you can imagine. Inside, there are servants and guests that cater to every conceivable whim. There’s no suffering, whatsoever. The people who live there are as happy and content as can be.

In that same house, however, there’s a dungeon in the basement. Within that dungeon, people are being horribly and endlessly tortured. They’re repeatedly beaten, burned, and mutilated without mercy. The suffering is constant and the pain is unbearable. Every day, more and more people are forced into that dungeon and never let out. They constantly cry and scream for mercy, but it never comes.

Everyone in that house knows the dungeon is there. They’re constantly reminded of it. At times, they can even hear the tortured screams of those trapped inside. Some of the people there might even be friends and loved ones. However, they don’t do anything about it. They don’t show an ounce of sorrow or concern. They just continue enjoying the joys and comforts the rest of the house has to offer.

With this scenario in mind, how would you judge the people who weren’t in the dungeon? How would you judge anyone who is perfectly happy when others nearby are suffering horribly? It would be one thing if they didn’t know the torture was happening, but the people in that house have always known, even before they arrived. To still be happy in that house requires more than just an immense lack of empathy.

This is just one of many fundamental disconnects in traditional concepts of Heaven and Hell. While it’s not the first flaw I’ve pointed out, it’s one that I believe is incredibly relevant because it subverts core aspects of our humanity. Regardless of whether you believe humans evolved or were magically created, it’s a biological fact that humans are a very social species. Empathy is a key component of that dynamic.

Empathy doesn’t just allow us to coordinate, cooperate, and relate to one another. It’s at the core of our understanding of right and wrong. You could even argue that empathy is the core ingredient within the Golden Rule that so many religions preach in some form or another, including those that incorporate some form of Hell.

It’s also the foundation on which our innate sense of justice and fairness is built. Both foundations crack once Heaven and Hell enter the picture. However, when eternity enters the picture, which is common in various Judeo-Christian traditions, those foundations shatter.

It’s in that context where simply being callous to the suffering of others, even if you feel they deserve it, becomes unavoidably sadistic. As soon as eternity enters the equation, any sense of proportional justice becomes impossible. Even for the most monstrous individuals who spent every moment of their lives hurting others, a punishment without end eventually becomes unjust.

At that point, the pain and suffering someone endures is no longer about punishment or justice. It becomes part of a sadistic act that only becomes more sadistic the longer it goes on. If Hell is truly eternal, as many devout believers espouse, then its very existence is an act of infinite sadism.

That’s a major problem for any theology that includes an all-knowing, all-loving deity. By definition, a deity cannot be all-loving while exercising infinitely sadistic acts. If that same deity is all-powerful, then that only makes things worse because it means the deity has the power to both stop those acts and prevent them from ever happening. By not doing so, the deity becomes even more sadistic.

Now, there are plenty of traditions that include sadistic gods. The god of the Old Testament certainly qualifies in many respects. If a deity of that power opts to use it for sadistic acts, it doesn’t carry as much weight in terms of how humans approach morality and justice. Granted, it means the people who worship that deity must do so out of fear on some levels, but their approach in that context is understandable.

It’s less understandable when Hell and the concept eternal punishment becomes part of a larger theology because it means adherents must participate in sadistic activities, even if it just means ignoring the torture inflicted by someone else. Everyone in Heaven, no matter how wonderful it is, has to remain numb to the infinite suffering going on below them.

Considering how threats of Hell has been a common tool for proselytizing, the sadism gets compounded even more, both from a human and theological perspective. More than one adherent had used the threat of Hell to warn others about believing in something other than their preferred religion. They likely do so out of genuine compassion and concern for those who don’t believe.

However, once that same person goes to Heaven, they have to become a sadist on some levels. They must now exist in a domain where others they tried to save from eternal damnation are doomed to endless suffering. They know it’s happening at every waking moment. It doesn’t matter if time works differently in the afterlife. Eternity is still eternity.

Even if that same person convinced every person they met to embrace their theology, there’s still the countless others that they never reached. That doesn’t even begin to account for all the other hapless souls that have lived throughout history, practicing other religious traditions with every bit as much devotion and piety. Even if they committed no egregious crimes, they could be damned to Hell.

While many religious traditions offer some recourse for righteous individuals who follow a different faith or lived before those traditions began, the concept is still flawed because it requires some tolerance of injustice. When people are judged by actions or inactions for which they had no opportunity to react, tolerating the results means tolerating injustice.

It doesn’t even work if the deity involved only sends the worst of the worst people to Hell. No matter how bad somebody’s crimes were, they were finite in nature because humans are finite beings. The issues surrounding infinite punishment for finite sins is subject to its own set of theological and moral debates, but the implications are unavoidable.

Think of the most brutally sadistic person who lived 6,000 years ago, a time that even the most conservative Christians agree that humans walked the planet. Over the course of their life, they committed every possible crime and sin. They murdered, raped, tortured, and blasphemed with unrepentant glee. The scars of their crimes lasted years after their death.

However, after a certain amount of time, their deeds cease to have a real impact. The victims and the descendants of those victims move on. The world moves on. Eventually, the memory of the person’s crimes fade. The finite transgression become nothing more than a faded memory. At that point, what’s the purpose of continuing the punishment?

Moreover, what happens to that purpose if and when that monstrous individual seeks to repent? Given enough time and punishment, at least one damned soul would see the light and wish to atone in a way beyond suffering. In most civilized societies, we give those individuals that chance. Hell, if it is truly eternal, offers no such opportunity.

At that point, the punishment is no longer punishment. It’s just sadistic torture. It ceases being a measure of justice and becomes an act of injustice. Even if it takes a trillion years deliver a proportional punishment for a finite person’s egregious behavior, they’ll still be subject to trillions of more years of torment.

All the while, everyone in Heaven has to be okay with this. If part of being a righteous soul means compassion for victims and proportional punishment for transgressors, then nobody in Heaven can remain righteous. Even if the all-powerful deity demands it and they are powerless to change anything, they still have to temper the very empathy that made them righteous in the first place.

Heaven and Hell are difficult, distressing concepts. Whether you’re devoutly religious or a lifelong atheist, it’s never pleasant imaging an afterlife that involves horrendous punishment, even if it’s reserved for the worst of humanity. Not every religious tradition involves an afterlife or traditions of an eternal Hell, but the concept reveals more about our innate sense of humanity than it does any religious doctrine.

Human beings are at their best when they can empathize, appreciate, and understand one another. There will certainly be instances when people commit gross injustices. How we deal with them is critical in terms of how we structure our societies and survive in an ever-changing world. Anything that attempts subverts it or requires that we suspend our humanity will only make every gross injustice infinitely worse.

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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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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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Creationism, Religion, And Mafia Morality

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Anyone who has seen at least one movie about the mafia has a good idea for how they do business. They take the whole “might makes right” approach to its logical conclusion. Being in the right means being strong. Being strong means being able to dictate what is right. It’s circular reasoning, but that’s how the mob justifies its activities, from loan sharking to protection rackets.

The setup is simple. You find someone who is inherently weaker, tell them what will happen to them if they don’t pay them, and let fear of death or bodily harm do the rest. The weak usually pay up, whether it’s money, respect, silence, or a combination of the three. The foolish will try to resist and often face serious consequences.

Most reasonable people find this kind of morality deplorable. However, this kind of morality is often employed by another organization that is not only legal. It doesn’t even have to pay taxes in many countries. That powerful entity is organized religion it can take mafia morality to a far greater extreme.

Before I go any further, I want to make clear that I’m not claiming that religion is worse than the mafia. Most religious people are kind, decent people who would never dream of employing this kind of morality. Only a subset of exceedingly dogmatic adherents resort to such extreme and I’m not just talking about the Spanish Inquisition.

These people aren’t pages in history or fodder for a Monty Python sketch. They’re real, they run official ministries, and even manage to obtain tax incentives for major projects. Their brand of religion isn’t just conservative. It’s unapologetically strict. They don’t just garner theological insight from holy texts. They take it as literally as the evening news.

That includes stories like Genesis, despite considerable evidence that it was derived from earlier flood-based stories from ancient Mesopotamia. They read that the god of the bible created the world in six days and they interpret that as six 24-hour days. There’s no room for metaphor or translation errors. This is infallible truth and any effort to contest that is met with the fiercest resistance.

While this kind of dogmatic adherence manifests in many ways, including justifications for slavery and anti-gay discrimination, one of the most overt manifestations occurs in the form of creationists. Now, as much as I respect the faith that many place in their particular religion, I’ve always had a hard time respecting creationists.

They’ve always struck me as a form of Christianity that’s as misguided as it is absurd. It’s not just that they believe the bible literally. They go so far as to say that everything science has concluded about life, evolution, cosmology, and physics is wrong. Some go so far as to claim that it’s an anti-Christian conspiracy on the level of the Illuminati and shape-shifting lizards.

If that was the extent of their faith, then I wouldn’t have a problem with it. Plenty of non-religious people believe in absurd conspiracy theories. However, creationism is especially pernicious in that a key factor in that dogma has a basis in mafia morality. It’s rarely stated overtly, but when it does show, it brings out the worst in its adherents.

Most recently, it reared its head in a surprisingly overt way during a debate between Aron Ra, the director of the Texas state chapter of American Atheists and a popular YouTube personality, and Kent Hovind, a well-known creationist evangelical who has made a career out of debating opponents.

This is the least absurd photo of Mr. Hovind I could find.

While I have my opinions about Mr. Hovind, who I feel has a serious credibility problem in terms of credentials, his methods for contesting evolution leave a lot to be desired. If you got more than a B-minus in a high school science class at a legitimate public school, even in America, you’re capable of seeing through his poorly-rendered ideas.

However, there are times when he, and other creationists like him, skip the part where they pretend to understand the science they deny and resort to the kind of mafia morality that they feel vindicates their beliefs. In essence, they threaten their opponent on behalf of their deity that believing in science will lead them to an afterlife full of eternal torture and suffering.

Never mind the inherent Problem of Hell that many religious and non-religious people have debated for centuries. By their logic, not believing in the holy texts of their religion is an outright affront to their deity and, for the same reason you don’t want to offend a powerful mafia boss, you don’t want to offend an all-powerful being.

Most creationists are subtle about this, but in his debate with Aron Ra, Mr. Hovind basically resorted to this tactic at the end of the nearly two-hour debate. These were his exact words:

“I would like to remind you guys, you’re gonna die one day and you’re gonna be dead for a long time. I hope you can take what you believe to the grave. You’re happy with it?”

While he doesn’t say outright that his deity is going to punish non-believers like Aron Ra for all eternity, the subtext is there. While non-believers may not be at all concerned with what happens after they die, it’s a genuine concern for someone like Mr. Hovind. He truly believes that his God is the kind of deity that would severely punish people for not believing in a specific translation of a holy text.

Ignoring for a moment the absurdities inherent in that attitude, take a moment to appreciate the kind of world Mr. Hovind and others like him believe. In their world, there’s an all-powerful, all-knowing being that wants human beings to think a certain way and accept certain concepts. Even if there’s evidence to the contrary, they must believe it. If they don’t, they’re punished with the full wrath of an all-powerful being.

That’s not just a scary thought, even for a devout believer. It’s the ultimate extreme of mafia morality. No matter how much evidence there is for evolution or how many errors in the bible are documented, the sheer might of an all-powerful deity trumps all of it. No matter what every tool of science or sense of the mind says, deviating in the slightest means punishment in the utmost.

While I’ve noted in the past how eternal punishment and eternal bliss tend to lose meaning in the long run, I suspect it’s a significant concern for creationists like Mr. Hovind. I even have some sympathy for them, if it is the case they genuinely fear the eternal torture referenced in their theology. It may be the case that they’re just charlatans or trolls and they wouldn’t be the first who used religion to aid their efforts.

Even if the Kent Hovinds of the world are just trying to get out of paying taxes, and failing to do so at times, the extreme mafia morality of their theology still has a major impact on adherents and religion. It’s worth noting that Mr. Hovind’s brand of creationism is on the decline among Christians. His kind is an extreme version of a faith that most people don’t accept.

It’s still a dangerous and distressing concept to espouse, that an all-powerful deity would punish reasonable people for accepting what evidence and reason tell them. That’s a tactic that ruthless mob bosses utilize, much to their detriment. Unlike the mafia, though, all-powerful deities don’t risk anything by being so ruthless and those caught in their path are bound to suffer.

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Why Do Religious People Wear Seat Belts?

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What happens when you die? This question and how people go about answering it is the basis for nearly every major religion in existence. Whether there’s a promise of Heaven, Hell, or reincarnation, it’s fundamental to many religious doctrines. This is especially true of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, which make up a sizable portion of the global population.

Given these doctrines and their emphasis on life after death, why do adherents of those faiths wear seat belts? That may sound like an inane question, but it has profound implications.

I ask that question because I grew up in an area where there were a lot of churches, a couple mosques, and even a few synagogues. It wasn’t uncommon to see traffic jams around those places, especially during holidays. From what I could tell, though, the people leaving those places were wearing seat belts. That, in and of itself, sends mixed messages.

While Judaism is somewhat vague about the afterlife, it does frequently reference a soul that exists beyond the body. Christianity and Islam are a lot more overt, having many references to Heaven for the holy and Hell for the wicked. I’ve noted before how this concept falls apart when you apply human perspectives to the mix, but these are still critical tenants in the eyes of adherents.

Why then, under those beliefs, would they fear or avoid death? Why would they even mourn loved ones who die? Under the tenants of their religion, their bodies are just gone. Their souls still live on. They’re either lying in wait for the end-times or on their way to Heaven, Hell, or some other version of the afterlife.

It’s a strange disconnect that doesn’t mesh with the emotions we feel when someone we love dies. I’ve come to know those emotions painfully well this past year. I’ve had to attend two funerals, one of which was for my grandmother and I was very close to her. When she passed, I felt that loss on a deeply personal level.

At the same time, there were others in my own family who experienced that same loss, but still maintained a deep devotion to their faith. There were even times when we were encouraged to celebrate their passing because they had ascended to a better place and were reunited with other loved ones.

This is supposed to provide comfort to those still in pain. I can attest to just how powerful comfort can be to someone who has just lost somebody they loved. Even with that comfort, though, I can vividly recall many family members still mourning. Even if they believed that someone they loved was in a better place, they still felt sad.

On a fundamental level, this seems contradictory. You’re feeling sad because someone you love is gone, but at the same time, you’re being told they’re not gone. On top of that, they’ve moved onto a better place that is free of suffering. For someone like my grandmother, who endured plenty of that at the end of her life, this should be a good thing.

It doesn’t stop the sadness, though. We still feel the pain of loss, even when a deeply-held religious doctrine tells us otherwise. There’s a lot to like about the idea that someone we love is no longer suffering and is now enjoying eternal bliss in a heavenly paradise. Even so, it still hurts and we still mourn.

This brings me back to seat belts and why religious adherents wear them. It’s objectively true that not wearing a seat belt is dangerous. If you don’t wear one and get in an accident, then your chances of suffering a fatal injury are much higher. If you’re a devout believer, though, why is that a bad thing?

I’m not being cynical here. It’s an honest question. Why make a concerted effort to survive in a world that can kill you in so many ways? Why go to a doctor whenever you get sick? Why seek treatment when you’re diagnosed with an illness that has the potential to kill you? Ideally, wouldn’t you just seek to alleviate the discomfort, but not whatever ailment is killing you?

If this life is just a precursor to another life, then efforts to prolong it don’t make sense. In fact, efforts to save innocent people don’t even make sense in that context because saving them means keeping them in a world that will make them suffer at some point. Whether it’s a stubbed toe or crippling poverty, preserving life is just increasing their opportunities for suffering.

The messages get even more mixed when major religious leaders go to such lengths to protect themselves. Why did Osama Bin Laden bother hiding for so long if he was that confident he’d go to paradise when he died? Why does the Pope have such intense security wherever he goes? People with this level of faith should be the most confident that they’re going somewhere better when they die.

To some extent, we can attribute this to our built-in survival instinct. One of the most fundamental drives of any living thing, be it a human or an amoeba, is to survive. Much like our sex drive, which religion also attempts to subvert, this is difficult to turn off. More than a few preachers, rabbis, and mullahs have encouraged people to fight this instinct with every fiber of their being.

However, they rarely encourage those same people to avoid wearing seat belts. You probably won’t find many holy men who urge their adherents to never go to the doctor or go out of their way to eat expired meat. Even if our survival instinct is naturally stronger than our sex drive, the implications are unavoidable. They’re asking people to put off escaping a flawed, pain-filled world.

Some of those people, whose sincerity I don’t doubt for a second, will claim that they have family and loved ones to take care of. This is especially powerful with parents, who will do anything and everything to protect their children. Despite that, their efforts still convey incompatible ideas.

A believer wants to stay alive in this chaotic world for the sake of their loved ones, but also believes that those same loved ones move onto a better place after they die, assuming they’ve lived a virtuous life. That assumption gets harder over time, though, because the longer someone lives, the more opportunities they’ll have to descend into sin and depravity.

Most reasonable people consider the death of innocent children to be a truly awful tragedy. The parents of those children are likely to feel immense pain on a level that few can comprehend. At the same time, the likelihood that a child is innocent is far greater than that of someone who has lived much longer. By default, they would be the most likely to get into Heaven.

Even so, people still mourn. They still cry, lament, and suffer the loss of innocent life. Does this mean that they know on some level that there is no afterlife? I wouldn’t go that far. It’s impossible to know what goes through the mind of a believer, especially after they’ve endured the death of a loved one.

For most adherents of religion, which include many members of my family, I doubt these sorts of implications have much impact. Most peoples’ faith is fairly moderate in terms of how they contextualize it with their existence. They can draw clear lines between the real world and the spiritual world.

It’s the minority of zealots, though, for which the issue of life, death, and seat belts becomes a logistical and theological problem. If a particular religion is going to be built around life after death, then how can it justify encouraging adherents to wear seat belts and avoid mortal danger?

In the grand scheme of things, they’re gambling with their immortal souls. The longer they live, the more likely they’ll be to deviate from the prescribed holy path. In that context, why would suicide be discouraged? Even if suicide is considered a mortal sin, why would avoiding accidents or fatal diseases be immoral? Why would anyone that devout feel any ounce of sorrow when someone they love dies?

I don’t expect these questions and their various implications to undercut anyone’s faith. I suspect most will take the Rick Sanchez approach to this issue, which is to not think about it. Regardless of what people may or may not believe, we still mourn the loved ones we lose. We still live our lives with the intention of surviving another day.

In that effort, it makes perfect sense for us to wear a seat belt. The fact that the doctrines of several major religions fundamentally complicate that inherently logical recourse is both telling and distressing. They can shame us for feeling horny, but they cannot stop us from feeling sorrow or hesitation in the face of death. Even the power of faith has its limits and, in this context, that’s not a bad thing.

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How To Resolve The “Religious Freedom” Debate

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Every now and then, a tragic story comes along involving an innocent child who needlessly dies because their parents refused to give them medical treatment due to their religious doctrine. Whether you’re deeply religious or overtly atheist, these stories are heart-wrenching. The fact they occur is a travesty.

Just last year, a two-year-old girl died in Pennsylvania because that very reason. Consequently, her parents were charged with involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment. They were later convicted and subsequently lost custody of their other children.

Those are the least surprising details of the story. They aren’t the first parents to get charged with a crime for refusing to provide medical treatment to their children on religious grounds. According to a study by Pediatrics, 140 children died of treatable medical conditions from 1975 to 1995. You also don’t have to look far to find some pretty tragic stories of children needlessly suffering because of their parents’ inaction.

I bring up these distressing, disheartening facts because there’s one critical detail to stories like those of the girl in Pennsylvania. While the parents of that girl were convicted, the church they attended, the Faith Tabernacle, was not held liable. Never mind that the church’s tenants were what told them to pray harder rather than take their child to a hospital. They incurred no responsibility for that girl’s death.

They’re not the only church that holds those beliefs, either. According to ChildrensHealthCare.org, there are nearly two dozen churches whose tenants discourage or prohibit seeking medical treatment. Moreover, there are laws in certain parts of the United States that actually protect these organizations from liability. Much of it is done in the name of “religious freedom.”

That’s a term I’m sure most with access to a news feed have heard recently. In fact, they’re probably been hearing it a lot more frequently lately, albeit not in a way that links directly to dead children. The indirect link is still there and it’s the key to unlocking the controversy and the resolution to the issue.

Now, I put “religious freedom” in quotes because it’s another one of those vague terms that can be construed to mean anything to fit a particular situation. More often than not, it’s an excuse to argue for favorable or preferential treatment of an individual or group.

That, in and of itself, isn’t too remarkable. People are going to argue for favorable treatment with or without religion. Where “religious freedom” sets itself apart are the legal protections it seeks. Those parents of that dead little girl used religious freedom to justify their behavior.

That is, admittedly, an extreme example and one that rarely makes the news. These days, the most common manifestation of “religious freedom” controversies involve people using it to justify denying services to LGBT individuals, be it a marriage license or a wedding cake. It was also part of a major decision by Supreme Court involving a cake shop that refused service to a gay couple.

Those who champion “religious freedom” cheered the ruling and the precedent it set. This, along with the Hobby Lobby ruling in 2014, establishes that someone can use sincerely held religious beliefs to obtain exemptions from mandates prescribed by law. It seems the effort in securing this “freedom” is gaining momentum and winning battles in the courtroom.

Again, I put that word in quotes for a reason and one I hope will help craft an appropriate standard for what constitutes actual freedom and what constitutes contrived excuses. That is, in essence, what the “religious freedom” battles are seeking. They’re pursuing legally-protected excuses for their theology and its associated behaviors.

I can understand, to a limited extent, why there would need to be some legal protections for religious groups and not just for the purposes of anti-discrimination efforts. We need to have some resource for situations where someone is coerced into doing something that goes against their religion. Strapping someone to a chair and forcing them to eat shellfish will do unique distress to a Jewish person than it will for others.

That being said, it’s somewhat telling that the organizations fighting hardest for “religious freedom” also happen to be organizations that have preached hatred and misinformation on the LGBT community for years. Some of these organizations are designated as hate groups and their sentiment on LGBT issues is rarely subtle.

To them, the free exercise of their religion, as articulated in the first amendment, means the ability to treat certain people, notably LGBT individuals, a particular way. Some will even take it farther than that, seeking the right to craft their entire society around their theology, regardless of what secular law states.

It’s an effort not limited to one religion or denomination, either. There are other major religions with theology that goes beyond refusing service to LGBT individuals and crafting a society where their adherents are their primary authority. Therein lies the greatest flaw in the whole “religious freedom” debate.

When put into practice, the actual expression is less about the exercise of religion and more about the treatment of minorities. Those same Christian bakers may fight for their right to refuse service to a gay couple, but would they fight for the right of a Muslim cab driver to refuse customers with alochol? Well, when the courts ruled against that particular religious expression, there was no major outrage.

That’s the first and most critcial step to assessing the merits of “religious freedom” and the agendas behind them. If you reverse the majority/minority dynamics, is it applied equally? If the majority is the only one that benefits, then it’s not really freedom. It’s an overly elaborate excuse with religion as a cover.

There’s an even easier standard to use if majority/minority dynamics are too complex. This one goes back to the tragic stories about parents refusing life-saving medical treatment for their children. It can be articulated with a simple set of questions.

Could a form of religious expression/teaching be used to justify conduct that leads to the death of a child?

If yes, then it warrants no legal protections of any kind.

If no, then it constitutes free expression.

It’s a fairly simple standard, one that does not add a religious context to freedom and expression. There is freedom. There is expression. Sometimes it’s religious. Sometimes it’s not. Whether it’s just going to church on a Sunday or not eating certain foods, it’s just another form of freedom and freedom is a beautiful thing.

When it’s used to justify the deaths of children and discriminating against minorities, it’s not freedom. It’s just bullying looking for legal protection. I’m completely in favor of people practicing their religion as they see fit or no religion at all. However, there are standards for a civilized society and those standards cannot and should not accommodate excuses for dead children.

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