Sunday, January 21, 2007

A Satirist on Religion

My regulars will likely remember a few times in the past where I mentioned people's ability to recognize satire, highlighting the example of my University's paper's columnist, Brendan Pinto. In the past, I've defended him from people who have grossly misinterpreted his intentions. Today's a bit different, because this time he took on religion.

That's not to say he actually took on religion; rather, his satirical persona did. So in actuality he's either criticizing atheism or arguments against religion. I may have defended him in the past, but that's no reason not to disagree with him now. I have no sacred cows here - only spherical ones. So, let's dig into his article:

If there exists one uniting cultural force that crosses civilizations and connects the vast majority of humankind, it would have to be the hallowed institution of religion.

If there exists one uniting cultural force that crosses civilizations and connects the vast majority of humankind, it would have to be not being Canadian. Yeah, that's a pretty pointless claim, whatever you put in there. Also a bit of an appeal to popularity. Seems he can't help a few of his own beliefs slipping in. Notice how he also called it "hallowed," something most atheists would never do.

A tightly organized and fervently followed set of beliefs, held sacred by hundreds of millions of followers, providing instructions on how to live a moral life via divine revelation. Pffft. What a bunch of A-holes.

Billions of followers, actually. And the instructions are only partly on actual morals, a lot of it is on perceived morals. That is to say, it's instructions just made up to make the followers think they're better than others because they follow these crazy rules and others don't. (Read Leviticus sometime. It's full of ridiculous commandments like "Thou shalt not shave.") I'll agree with the "A-hole" part though. (And note: You're allowed to say "asshole" in a university paper; we're all adults here.)

Co-ordinating the veneration of a deity is and will continue to be the most destructive force on the planet. You need look no further than the billions of lost man-hours and wasted productivity spent in churches, temples, mosques, and whatever the hell scientologists meet in. This doesn’t even begin to include the even longer stretches of time devoted to daily prayers and reflection. With all this time spent not working, you’d think these people were hippies.

Agreed. What exactly was he trying to satirize here, I wonder? Religion is a frakking huge waste of time, and that's one of my big beefs with it.

The most notable violence incited by religion occurred during a horrific series of wars known as the Crusades. These battles were not meant to stop in-fighting among the Christians of Europe following a relative stabilization of its borders and stem the violence the aimless warriors were committing against the peasantry of the West. No, they were started because Jesus, between sermons on peace, love and helping the poor, wanted people to kill all non-Christians for the glory of his name. The Muslim army wasn’t pushing west to expand a growing Empire; it was just following the instructions in the Koran to, and my Arabic is a little weak, quote "slaughter those Jesus lovers." Look it up.

Ah, here we go, some actual arguments. First of all, I'd put the Inquisition and Witch Hunts above the Crusades, and it's a lot harder to defend those. As for the Crusades themselves, there may have been other reasons, but religion was the tool used to mobilize the masses. Crusaders were promised a free ticket into heaven if they died on a crusade. Muslims who die in religious war are promised a free ticket into heaven plus 72 virgins. You think incentives like that don't encourage warfare a bit too much?

As for stopping the in-fighting that was going on, trace it back. What was causing all of that in the first place? Minor religious differences, n'est pas? So, the crusades just refocused the warfare caused by religion. As for the Muslim side, why did they have to expand? It was because their religion commanded them to procreate more than a society with fixed borders could sustain. Religion at fault again.

Religion has been used to spur conflict almost as much as patriotism and ethnic allegiances.


I say while we are abolishing religion, we get rid of the other two as well.

One world government, I like it. If we all live in the same nation, we can't very well declare war on ourselves, now can we? And if we don't have "ethnic allegiances," we also won't have racism. The problem is that we'll lose out on unique cultural contributions to art, but I'm sure you knew this. The thing is, a balance has to be reached somehow.

Even more recently we see the dangers of religion. The scandals involving lewd and lascivious acts of marauding Catholic priests committed against alter boys. If it weren’t for the Catholic Church, we wouldn’t have molestations. The strict moral teachings of religions inevitably lead to these heinous acts.

Let's see, the church demands its priests be perfectly celibate. Masturbation's also a sin, so that's out of the question. That's going to put a lot of pressure on anyone, and it's not surprising that some are going to burst. Of course, there would be pedophiles without the church, but this way it's harder on them. Plus you're giving the ones that already exist an unrivaled opportunity to abuse young boys without fear of reprisal. The church's obsession with upholding its holy image is what caused them to go on a massive cover-up, allowing pedophiles to abuse kids even longer. The church authorities are apparently the most religious people out there, and they care more about maintaining their image than protecting innocent children.

Now the odious religious types would have you believe that it is not the institution, but the individuals who are at fault.

Which might be valid if the institution either knew nothing about it, or did everything they could to stop it. Neither applies here.

They will yammer on about how it is not that the ideas of a religion are harmful, but the exploitation of their influence by those in power to oppress or do harm.

Any idea can be abused. Some tend to be more prone to abuse than others, however. Compare the basic Skeptic's message of "Critical Thinking = Good." That one's pretty hard to abuse. Now look at the basic religious message, appropriate to pretty much every religion, of, "Us = Good. Them = Bad." Yeah, that's not prone to abuse in the slightest. (Don't worry, checks are in the mail to replace any broken sarcasm detectors.)

If this is true, Jesus and Mohammad should have known that their warning to follow God’s laws are going to be taken out of context and kept the message to themselves. Seriously, what kind of a prophet are you if you didn’t see that coming?

More importantly: What kind of god doesn't see this coming? And what kind of god sees it happening and does nothing? That's right, the kind that doesn't actually exist.

Deep in the heart of all religious dogma lie the seeds of hatred waiting to germinate in the rich, fertile potting soil of the idiot population.

Sadly, it's true.

It isn’t just extremism or zealotry. Religion in and of itself is wrong.Because the concept of religion is built upon the idea that the core ‘truths’ espoused by the religion are absolute and immutable, this idea gets extended to every bit of dogma associated with that set of beliefs. This is what makes every religion wrong in every possible way — no exceptions.

Extreme literalism is indeed a problem, as is the cognitive dissonance that it creates when the truths contradict themselves.

You may be asking how I could be so sure about this. I know that I’m right because this can be one of two things — a logical fallacy in the form of a false dichotomy or the unequivocal truth, and since I never speak in false dichotomies, it must be true.

Is it just me, or does that sound a bit too much like something religiosos use to defend their claims to the truth?

As an atheist, I see the harm religion does and know that the only way to make this world a better place is to eliminate it entirely. You know, how that Stalin guy tried to do. Taking the nation he built as an example, we see that eliminating religion will lead us to a Utopia free of suffering and ignorance.

"Stalin was an atheist, therefore atheism is bad." That's one notch removed from an argument ad Nazium. And not a vertical notch, mind you, a horizontal notch. I'm tempted to point out that Hitler himself was quite religious and turned WWII era Germany into something of a theocracy with a few new rules that made the Fuhrer something to be worshipped, but that would be stooping to his level, so I won't.

Unfortunately, we are stuck in this society with all the preachy pious jerk-offs breathing down our necks, day in and day out ,telling us "killing is a sin, lying is a sin, stealing is a sin." Shit, everything is a sin according to someone.

Um, nowadays, religiosos seem to be saying more along the lines of, "Gay is a sin, evolution is a sin, questioning is a sin." And you can say "Shit" but not "Asshole"? What the frak is up with that? (A little satire of my own, if you couldn't tell.)

You can read the entire article here, though I've quoted pretty much the entire thing.

I suspect that this article is going to spawn a lot of hate from religious people who didn't get it. If I can compress my thoughts into about 500 words or so, I might throw them for a loop and send in a letter arguing with the point he actually tried to make.


austinatheist said...

Who would have thought that theists aren't funny when it comes to irreverent humor? Go figure.

You should definitely write an anticipatory letter to the editor. And I'd sure like to see you post any letters that completely miss their mark. What can I say?

Shadenfreude. That's what.

Infophile said...

Alright, I sent in a letter. It's a bit on the long side, but hopefully they'll be willing to print it. Here's what I said:

I figure Brendan Pinto’s probably getting a lot of hate mail right now from religious people who don’t know that his column is satirical. I figured I’d throw you for a loop and send in an argument from an atheist who does know his column is satirical.

In his first couple of paragraphs, I find it hard to see what exactly he’s satirizing. I’ll just point out that I agree, in my mind, religion is a HUGE waste of time. It’s in the later paragraphs that things get interesting.

He brings up the case of the Crusades as an instance of religious violence, but it hardly stops there. Religion has also caused witch hunts, inquisitions, civil wars, international wars, and terrorism – much of which is still going on today. Just look at the Middle East or North Ireland (though the cease-fire there has fortunately been holding in recent years). As for the Crusades themselves, Brendan tries to excuse them by saying they were to stop the in-fighting of Europe. Putting aside the issue of whether two wrongs make a right, what do you think caused the in-fighting? Religious differences again.

Unfortunately, it’s actually true that religion seems to cause a lot of hatred in people. As an “out” atheist, I’ve been bombarded with my share of hate mail, and it can get ridiculously vicious. The simply fact that I’m an atheist seems to be all that bothers them. I also have friends who refuse to come out for fear of the hate and persecution they’d experience. Do I have a problem with some religious people? I indeed do. It’s not the ones saying “killing is a sin, lying is a sin, stealing is a sin,” though. It’s the ones saying “Evolution is a sin, Gay is a sin, Atheism is a sin.”

I also have a few big problems with religion as a whole which Brendan never touches on in his satire. The main problem here is the religion tends to shut off or suppress critical thinking skills in people. A key tenet in almost every religion is to accept it on faith, despite a lack of evidence for it or even evidence contradicting it. It’s easy to see how people get trapped in religion, actually: The dogma says unquestioning faith is good. And if you have faith, you’ll believe the dogma is true unquestioningly. From the outside, however, it’s an obvious case of circular logic.

And then we come to the Stalin reference in his article, which is about one notch removed from an argument ad Nazium (for instance, if I were to point out that Hitler was Christian and turned WWII era Germany into something of a theocracy with himself as a surrogate pope, that would be an argument ad Nazium. But I’m not going to stoop to his level).

There’s one big problem with it, though: The nation Stalin tried to create was based more on what’s known as a “Cult of Personality.” It involves idolizing a leader as an almost religious figure, assuming everything they do is right, and suppressing all dissent. Those are the same actions that have been used by many theocracies in the past to maintain their stranglehold on power. The fact of the matter is that there have been no truly atheistic nations that didn’t fall into this problem. There have, however, been plenty of secular nations, where religion has been firmly separated from the workings of government, and these have been extraordinarily successful.

austinatheist said...

That is a bit long. But if they don't publish it, the editors might at least show it to Brendumb.

Anonymous said...

Brendumb.. I like it

Its not too long at all my good man. In fact I was ecstatic that you had written in. You were correct in your anticipation that there would be religious people who missed the point entirely, but would you believe it was an engineer? In fact he didn't write in, but was so incensed that he came into the office with a memory stick (or so I was told, I came into the office after him) so that he could bitch to me directly.

I maintain that you should have made a column submission. Work like yours definately has a place in a student newspaper. Perhaps you could just be a regular contributor to the opinion section for which I am now assistant editor. :)

As I have discovered in my time writing my particular column, satire is pretty much the hardest style of writing I have ever endevoured. So I thought I might just highlight some of the points I was trying to make but 'out of character'.

Just so you know, I actually am an atheist myself. An 'out' atheist as you put it, though I've never been the focus of any hate.

Now sure you may see religion as a waste of time, but I don't - not entirely at least. Watching television is a waste of time. Getting blind drunk is a waste of time - and money. There are hundreds of ways people waste theri time, but at least religious people waste theri time in a somewhat more constructive way. They donate money to charities that help people. They donate to their churches of course, but in the end, they are still helping people more than most atheists are. SO I repsect that. Are there better ways to spend your time? Probably. Are there worse? Definately.

I will agree with you that religion will at times serve as a catalyst to violence. It is used as a tool to rally people behind it. The core motivations are never really intrinsic to the religions themselves however. I see religion in the same way I see science (or more specifically technology). Our advances can be used for good, but can also be used to increase the destructive power of our armies. That doesn't mean science or technology is bad. Its their misuse.

If you take Northern Ireland as an example, and say 'see - Catholics and Protestants differ on religious grounds and that's why they are fighting each other.' Well, that's a theory, but it fall apart in virtually every other part of the world. THere are Catholics and Protestants in Ontario, but no such fighting exists. The core motivations for the violence there are socioeconomic in nature. Religion is just the banner used (or abused in my opinion) for the people to rally under.

Taking Iraq as another example. The differences between Sunni and Shia are largly superficial on a dogmatic level. The issues lie in the struggle for political dominance in the region. Once again, the use of religion as a banner to rally under doesn't make islam wrong. It makes Islam an exploited ideology. There are Sunni and Shia Muslims on campus right now, and they aren't fighting. If the true cause of the violence was the religion itself, how do you explain the fact that these conflicts are so localized?

I guess my central point on the matter is that to characterize religion itself as evil appears, to me at least, as a narrow view. If you focus on the fringes of religion, then yes there are ample examples of why its a crazy, crazy thing. If you take a big picture and see that not all, and in fact the vast majority of religious people are just trying to be good people, then it doesn't seem so bad.

The irony I saw in the issue is that so much of what is destructive in religion is the absolutist philosophy of it. To say religion is absolutely wrong just seems kinda funny, which was my main reason for writing that particular article.

Again, thank you so much for the letter you wrote into the paper. It will serve as a great contrast to the other letter received. Healthy debate is the quickest route to the best truth we'll ever know.

I look forward to reading anything else you wish to send in.


Infophile said...

Ah, nice to hear from you Brendan. It's nice to see you weren't entirely satirical there, but you're walking a fine line in this case.

Its not too long at all my good man. In fact I was ecstatic that you had written in. You were correct in your anticipation that there would be religious people who missed the point entirely, but would you believe it was an engineer? In fact he didn't write in, but was so incensed that he came into the office with a memory stick (or so I was told, I came into the office after him) so that he could bitch to me directly.

Actually, I would believe that it was an engineer. Engineers don't need the critical thinking skills that scientists do. They learn to use scientific findings, but they don't learn how science works at its core. This leaves them much more vulnerable to uncritical thinking.

I maintain that you should have made a column submission. Work like yours definately has a place in a student newspaper. Perhaps you could just be a regular contributor to the opinion section for which I am now assistant editor. :)

The problem there is that I just don't have the time - particularly this month. I have five classes worth of homework, a research project, a paper on the research project, a presentation on the research project, applications for summer jobs, and applications for grad school all to do this month. I can find time to post random stuff in my blog, but I just couldn't commit to a regular column. If I come back here for grad school, I'll keep it in mind, though. I still will write in if there's anything on my mine, though.

As for your point about religion doing good, I won't deny that it has done good in forming societies in the past. But I think that we've reached a point in civilization where we don't need it. We have secular arguments for all the important morals.

Religious charities have their own problems, too. First of all, most of them have a lot more overhead than secular charities, meaning less money actually gets through. Others can even exploit their position to force their religion on people - there have been numerous cases of charities who refuse to give support to people unless they convert.

I'll acknowledge that you have a point when it comes to religious civil wars; humans are a warlike species, and will fight anyways. The question is whether religion increases the amount of fighting, decreases it, or has no effect. I suspect it increases it, but others surely differ.

But besides that, there's still the other atrocities committed by religion, such as the Inquisition and Witch Hunts. There's another big one I didn't mention before, too: the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, which housed the wester world's combined knowledge, in an effort to purge the land of pagan temples. There's also the oppression that took place in every theocracy to ever exist, and the denial of rights to those of other religions (or simply denial of rights to all based on nothing but religious dogma).

austinatheist said...

Well, this is a surprise. Intentionality is a bitch, isn't it?

I'm just glad he was a good sport about me calling him "Bendumb."

Sorry, Brendan. I'm glad you showed up. I always like to see exchanges like this taking place.