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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

solidifying-religious-freedom-in-indonesia

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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Why You Can’t Believe In Eternal Hell, Be Anti-Abortion, And Be Morally Consistent

The Fallen Angels Entering Pandemonium, from 'Paradise Lost', Book 1 ?exhibited 1841 by John Martin 1789-1854

Brace yourself because I’m about to talk about two topics that make people very uncomfortable. One is abortion, a heated political topic that is poised to get even more heated, due to recent political upheavals. The other is Hell, a distressing theological issue that makes us dwell/lament on our impending death. If that weren’t volatile enough, I’m going to tie both topics together.

Rest assured, I’m not doing this to combine a couple of controversial issues for dramatic effect. While I loathe talking about issues like abortion, I don’t avoid it when it reveals something important about a particular movement or can demonstrate important lessons about society.

When it comes to Hell, a topic that heats up any debate between believers and non-believers, the conversations are just as difficult. I still feel they’re worth having. This one, in particular, counts as one of them because there are certain implications that warrant a more nuanced discussion.

It’s no secret that those who are vehemently anti-abortion also happen to be religious. Anti-abortion protesters even cite bible passages to justify their position. Now, I can understand and even accept certain ethical aspects of the pro-life position. However, when religion enters the debate, that’s where some real disconnects emerge.

That’s because when those factors enter the pro-life equation, both the morality and the math break down. To understand why, it’s important to focus on an aspect of the abortion debate that the late, great George Carlin famously emphasized. He sought consistency in the anti-abortion debate and noted its rarity in the most hilarious way possible.

Consistency is important if your argument is going to have merit. Even with emotionally-charged topics like abortion, consistency is key to ensuring that an argument has some semblance of logic. Since logic and faith tend to conflict, especially in matters of science, bringing religion into the mix can easily derail that consistency.

This is where the issue of Hell enters the picture. It’s a very unpleasant, but very critical concept to certain religions, namely Christianity and Islam. It’s central to their theology, which emphasizes punishment for the sinful. It’s a very morbid, but very relevant concept because everybody dies and nobody knows for sure what happens afterwards, if anything.

In the abortion debate, Hell matters for the anti-abortion side because their most frequent refrain is that abortion is murder. Having an abortion is the taking of a human life and murder is an egregious sin. It’s one of the few sins that’s enshrined in both secular law and the 10 Commandments.

By holding that position, though, it raises an important implication for both the consistency of the anti-abortion position and the theology used to justify it.

If abortion really does take a life, then what happens to that life? Does it go to Heaven or Hell?

That’s a critical question to answer, but it’s here where both the consistency and the moral underpinnings of the anti-abortion debate break down. In fact, it doesn’t even matter which way the question is answered. It still has critical implications that make an anti-abortion stance for religious reasons untenable.

To understand why, we need to look at the possible answers to the question and examine the bigger picture. Say, for instance, that you believe the deity you worship saves the souls of aborted fetuses. They all get to go to Heaven because sending unborn children to Hell just doesn’t make sense for a loving God.

By that logic, though, wouldn’t abortion actually be the best thing a woman could do for her unborn child? If, by aborting a pregnancy, she guarantees that her child goes to Heaven, wouldn’t that be the greatest act of love a mother could give?

In that moral framework, any woman who gives birth is basically gambling with their child’s soul. By bringing them into a sinful world, they put them in a position to live a life that will eventually send them to Hell. It doesn’t matter if that chance is remote. It doesn’t even matter if the deity reserves Hell for the worst of the worst. Any child born still has a non-zero chance of damnation.

In that context, being anti-abortion is the worst position to take for someone who believes that their deity sends aborted fetuses to Heaven. If anything, they would have to be in favor of abortion for every pregnancy, planned or unplanned, because it means more souls in Heaven and fewer in Hell.

The implications are just as distressing if you answer the question the other way. If your deity sends aborted fetuses to Hell, then logic follows that this deity cannot be just or loving. A fetus, by default, has no ability to even contemplate sin, let alone commit it. Sending it to Hell implies that sin, itself, is an empty concept.

It also undercuts key aspects of Judeo-Christian theology, which says that someone must sin to warrant damnation. Holding both a fetus and a young child with a limited capacity to understand such concepts is untenable. Keep in mind, Hell is supposed to be full of torture and suffering. What kind of deity puts a child through that?

Even if the deity knows which fetus or small child is destined to sin and punishes them accordingly, that still renders the anti-abortion position pointless. If the deity already knows which life is damned, then why does it matter whether a woman opts to have an abortion? If that has already been determined, then abortion has no religious implications whatsoever.

Whatever the case, the very concept of Hell creates an illogical loop that is incapable of consistency. Even if you grant the most generous assumptions of a religious argument, it still falls apart as soon as you try to put it into an ethical framework.

While the very concept of Hell is subject to all sorts of moral complexities, it effectively supercedes those complexities in the abortion debate. Either Hell is full of innocent aborted souls or is devoid of them. In both cases, it reveals more about the deity and the adherents of a religion than it does the actual issue.

None of this is to say that those who make anti-abortion arguments on the basis of faith aren’t sincere. I don’t doubt for a second that they are. They genuinely believe that abortion is immoral and constitutes murder. However, when it comes to making a moral argument, consistency matters. Without it, the arguments are entirely arbitrary and there’s no winning that debate.

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Boredom: How It Can Shape (And Subvert) Religion

Praying hands

Whenever I talk about boredom, whether in the context of the present or a future where it’s a full-blown plague, I often belabor how it’s effects and impacts are understated. That’s somewhat unavoidable. Boredom, by definition, requires an environment of limited, monotonous drudgery. Most people see their lives as inherently hectic so the boredom seems like a distant concern.

Hectic or not, everyone is still vulnerable to boredom’s corrosive effects. Those effects are well-documented and it’s part of why solitary confinement is considered torture. Those same effects can shape heroes, villains, and eccentric mad scientists, alike. It can also be a factor in determining the long-term viability of an ideology.

That last detail is something I attempted to explore in an earlier article where I introduced the concept of the Boredom Filter. Simply put, by contemplating an ideology taken to its ultimate end, the Boredom Filter can reveal whether that ideology can survive in a world where humans despise boredom and will do anything, including horrific crimes, to alleviate it.

While researching that article, I originally intended to apply the filter to religion as well. I knew that was sure to enter some extremely sensitive areas. Talking about identity politics and sexual taboos is tricky enough. Adding religion to the mix is like adding a bit of nitroglycerine to a burning pile of napalm.

On top of that, I think religion in its general form is somewhat distinct from ideologies like liberalism, conservatism, feminism, and even libertarianism. Those ideologies are philosophical or logistical tools that present themselves as guides or interpretations of social phenomenon. Religion also does that to some extent, but has a broader scope.

Religion doesn’t just cover methods for making sense of society and the universe, as a whole. Unlike an ideology that can be taught, learned, or studied, religion is a lot more subjective and dependent on personal and shared experiences. Even though religious affiliation is in decline, it’s still an influencing force on society.

Whether or not that influence grows or wanes is not the point. My focus, in this case, is to show how religion is shaped by boredom. I also intend to use it show how boredom can subvert the core tenants of a religion, if it’s followed strictly.

Before I go any further, I want to make clear that I’m not out to condemn or demean any particular religion or its adherents. I’m making a concerted effort not to play favorites here. If it sounds like I’m being unfair or too harsh to a particular religion or faith, I apologize. We all have our biases. I’m not particularly religious so I’ll try to remain objective as possible.

With that out of the way, I feel it’s important to establish one particular aspect of religion that sets it apart from political or philosophical ideologies, in terms of how boredom effects it. Religion, and religious experiences, are extremely subjective. You could argue that they’re entirely subjective.

One individual can go to a church on Sunday, listen to a sermon, and be incredibly moved on a personal level. To them, it could be one of the most intense experiences they could have. Another person who is as healthy and sane as the other can sit through that same sermon and be bored out of their mind.

It’s that subjective disparity that makes it difficult to apply the Boredom Filter. However, even with that disparity, boredom is still an influencing factor. A religion that evokes more of those intense experiences in a large number of people will likely be successful and pass the Boredom Filter. One that only evokes those experiences in a small group will only have limited appeal.

That’s why repressive cults usually only appeal to a handful of people. If you’re in a tight-knit group that’s full of solidarity and intense tribalism, it’s possible to get around boredom, if only because members are too scared or too brainwashed to escape. For larger religious organizations, boredom is a bigger issue because appealing to a lot of people means ensuring they don’t get bored.

When assessing an ideology with the Boredom Filter, it’s relatively easy to speculate on what their idealized society is because most ideologies clearly state those goals. Communists want a communist utopia. Liberals want a liberal utopia. Libertarians want a libertarian utopia. With religion, there’s not a clear endgame for the most part.

Sure, some religions like Christianity and Islam preach spreading the faith, if not converting the entire world’s population. Others either don’t emphasize it in their theology or only use it to the extent that it has to market itself in a modern economy. When applying the Boredom Filter, though, it’s important to be targeted.

By that, I mean it can’t just apply to what a holy book says or what sort of ethics certain religious icons preach. It has to apply to how it’s actually practiced. There are so many varying sects and denominations within a particular religion. Not all of them practice the same way or take their holy texts quite as literally.

That, more than anything, is the key to determining whether the Boredom Filter will impact a particular form of religious expression. Even if it passes, though, it can also reveal how that form of expression is shaped. It’s rarely overt, but the fact major religions have endured longer than most ideologies shows that a religion is more willing to adapt than it claims.

For a simple example, let’s apply the filter to the most common form of evangelical Christianity, as practiced by the religious right in America and espoused by religious leaders like James Dobson from the Family Research Council. They favor a brand of Christianity that favors a very strict form of religious morality.

It doesn’t take much speculation to see that this form of Christianity doesn’t pass the Boredom Filter. This brand of Christianity seeks one particular manifestation of family, one manifestation of gender, and one manifestation of personal conduct. That includes no promiscuity, no cursing, no porn, and no unholy behavior.

Even if that one manifestation of society is a particularly good one, it’s not hard to imagine people getting bored with that. At some point, they’re not going to be as moved when they go to church. They’re not going to be as excited about consuming the same Christian-friendly media or having sex with the same person for the same reasons again and again. Boredom will set in for many people. It’s unavoidable.

The same issue occurs when you apply the filter to fundamentalist Islam, especially the kind espoused by modern extremist groups. They may use a different holy book and employ different religious practices, but the manifestations are the same. It promotes a society of strict, rigid conformity for large numbers of people, regardless of their diverse personalities, passions, and proclivities.

Even when these standards are brutally enforced by state-sanctioned religious police, there’s no escaping the boredom. People may still conform out of fear for their lives, which is usually a stronger motivator. However, it only goes so far in terms of creating loyal, passionate adherents. In general, people who conform out of fear can only be so sincere.

In a sense, the fact that some of these religious ethics have to be enforced with fear and violence, be it from the police or threats of eternal damnation, is a tacit acknowledgement that those ideals are not tenable to a large group of people. Without that fear, the boredom alone will make them seek other experiences and no religion can survive like that.

That still begs the question as to why some religions manage to survive, even the repressive ones. On paper, the Catholic Church has pretty strict moral tenants. The Vatican opposes premarital sex, masturbation, divorce, homosexuality, abortion, contraception, and free expression that denigrates or defames the church.

However, the difference between the Catholic Church and the extreme forms of Islam and Christianity is that they can’t do much to enforce that morality. They could in previous centuries, but these days the Vatican’s moral proclamations are largely symbolic. They preach against immoral behavior, but don’t directly combat it.

To some extent, that might have helped the Catholic Church endure. By losing it’s authoritarian muscle, it had no choice but to adapt its theology to accommodate less-than-pure adherents. It’s not quite as flexible as some would prefer, but it has shown a willingness to revisit old traditions in the name of evolving with the times.

Other religions have done a much better job of that. Denominations like Reformed Judaism and Unitarian Christianity have been much more receptive to adapting their theology to the changing times. While this may upset some traditionalists, so much so that they won’t even consider those denominations as true adherents, they do win in one aspect. Adapting their theology keeps it from getting boring.

Sure, church on Sundays may still feel like a chore, but at least you won’t have to listen to the same fire and brimstone rhetoric every week. That counts for something when applying the Boredom Filter. Any sect or denomination that doesn’t do that, though, will only ever have limited appeal, at most.

In that sense, Islam is more vulnerable to the Boredom Filter. Traditional Islam is basically in the same domain where Catholicism was several hundred years ago. It still enforces strict adherence of its traditional method in many Islamic countries. Like the Vatican, however, the enforcement isn’t always on par with the Spanish Inquisition.

Within these countries, those traditions and the state-sanctioned enforcement of them are often challenged or overlooked. To some extent, the Boredom Filter is already having an impact because shifting demographics and generational clashes are leading some within Islam to become disillusioned with those rigid traditions. I’m not saying boredom is the sole cause of it, but like Christianity, it is a likely factor.

Islam’s ability to adapt to these trends will determine whether or not it will continue to endure like Catholicism. There are some making a genuine effort, much to the detriment of their safety. Whether or not these adaptations are sufficient will have depend heavily on its ability to pass the Boredom Filter.

I don’t want to speculate too much on the future of Islam, Christianity, or other faiths. I also don’t want to give the impression that the Boredom Filter is definitive, especially for something like religion. I present it as simply another tool to help make sense of, and possibly speculate on, the impact of religion.

That impact will continue to incur other impacts on society, even as religion continues to decline. It will always have a certain appeal to certain people. If it’s going to have appeal to more people in a future where people are more informed and possibly enhanced, it would be both wise and necessary for it to pass the Boredom Filter.

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