Tag Archives: religion

Not a Graduation Speech

It’s that time of year.  I recently attended my niece’s high school graduation ceremony.  Pomp and Circumstance and all that.  We were treated to no fewer than five commencement speeches by assorted valedictorians.  Okay, let them have their moment, a reward for hard work and dedication.

Something I found particularly noteworthy about these particular speeches was the content, a common theme.  Three of the speakers opted to speak at length about their religious faith, how they knew that God carried them through the hard times and all that.  Now, this was a public school, but I can’t say I found it especially surprising.  This school was in a relatively small town with a strongly church-going population, enough that there was a policy for the teachers to never assign homework on Wednesdays, because that was church youth group night.

Now I have no doubt some of you are bothered.  I know people who would be livid by this point, screaming about a grotesque violation of the separation of church and state.  Regardless of the fact that I am not a believer and I don’t much care for proselytizing, I cannot agree.  This is not a violation.

First let’s be clear: the Constitution is very specific in what limits are placed regarding church and state.  “Congress shall make no law,” it says, “respecting the establishment of religion, nor abridging the free exercise thereof.”  The first important point here is that the limitation is placed on legislation.  But no laws are created when a high school speaker invokes the name of Jesus.  Nor is it a violation when schools don’t assign homework so the students can attend church.  For one thing, the students aren’t actually being required to attend the youth group.  For the kids who don’t, it’s a night off.

But, say my acquaintances, it’s still the church exerting influence on the state, in this case the state instrument that is public education.  It is equally bad, they insist, if a teacher places a Bible on his desk in front of the students.  This is tantamount to compelling them to adopt his religious beliefs, thus violating the establishment clause.  Really?  Speaking as a former high school teacher, let me tell you how hard it is to compel the students to do anything.

Even more ludicrous is the idea that the students would be indoctrinated, that their minds will be filled with religion at the mere sight of the Bible.  Well gee, I’m pretty sure there’s also a math book on the desk; if showing the students a book is all it takes to fill their minds, shouldn’t they all be acing those standardized tests?  Face it, putting a Bible on the desk is not forcing religion on anyone.

But what about those commencement speakers?  They stood up and delivered religious messages in front of people who may not share those beliefs.  Yeah, so?  So, it’s an attack on those with differing beliefs.  Those people should not have to hear messages they don’t believe in.  Okay, I’ve already addressed this little bit of myopia.  But I’m intrigued in this case by how selective the objection is.

The argument goes, a student who says she succeeded by relying on her Christian faith is demeaning those who aren’t Christian.  What if she says she succeeded by working hard?  Isn’t she demeaning those who didn’t work hard?  One speaker talked about the life lessons he learned from playing sports; isn’t he demeaning all the non-athletes?  It’s strange how people limit their outrage to religion

Perhaps this is in part because, according to some perspectives, Christians are called upon to share the word.  Well, if you really believe in something, you are likely to want to share it with others.  We do that when we discover a great restaurant, or a a cool new band.  But we don’t take that as offensive; we say thanks, I’ll check it out.  And we may well have no intention of doing so.  I hate sushi, but if you tell me I should check out this great sushi restaurant, I won’t take offense.  I understand that you think you are doing me a favor.

So why do people take such offense when others come to the door and try to share the “good news” of Jesus?  Because, goes the answer, it’s arrogant; they assume they have the only “truth.”  Fair enough, but bear in mind that the truth they believe they have is the difference between salvation and damnation, and they are trying to save you.  Let’s try an analogy:  Suppose you see someone’s house on fire.  Further, you see him sitting inside, calmly watching TV.  Obviously he doesn’t know his house is burning.  So you go rushing up, bang on the door and say, “You’re going to die if you don’t get out!” 

Suppose you are the person in the house.  You have a poor sense of smell and can’t smell the smoke, so as far as you know, your house isn’t on fire.  Are you going to get mad and accuse the guy of trying to change your beliefs, since he believes your house is on fire?  Of course not; you’re going to check it out.  And even if he’s wrong, you won’t get offended that he thought he was saving your life.  And consider this: would you prefer he stay outside and not try to save you, because he doesn’t want to disrespect your beliefs?

No doubt you are calling this a ludicrous analogy.  Perhaps.  But to a believer, your soul is very much in peril, and he feels as obligated to save it from hell as he would to save your body from a house fire.  You may disagree with that belief (I do), but understand that it was well intentioned.  Nobody goes marching from door to door with pamphlets out of a sense of smugness.  Nobody.

Why am I bringing this up?  Because I feel rather like the proselytizer.  Having something to say that people don’t want to hear.  I must be very careful.  Religious people are filled with the spirit and spread the word and, while some may deride them as religious nuts, mostly they are accepted.  Vegetarians talk at length about the benefits of vegetarianism.  People go on and on about gay rights.  Or animal cruelty.  Or agrochemicals.  Or government spying.  Or whatever other thing they are interested in.  Some people, it’s all they can talk about.  At worst we call those people bores.  But, again, we tolerate them, because we have this thing called free speech.

But I talk about nudity and sexuality.  Notice that I must now rush to say I talk about other things as well.  This is not a website devoted exclusively to those things.  Even so, people are probably saying, are you going there again?  Dude, what’s wrong with you?  You are freakin’ obsessed with nudity and sex.  That’s a little creepy.  And you’re a teacher?  Eww! 

Got that?  I’m “obsessed” with nudity and sexuality because I talk about them quite a bit.  But there are people with websites devoted to vegetarianism, to Christianity, to parenting, to bicycling, to quilting, to old records, to science fiction, to… well, you name it.  But we don’t call those people obsessed.  They’re “passionate.”  And that’s okay.  We certainly don’t think there’s something wrong with them.  Nope, that’s reserved for people like me.

Well, so be it.  There’s more to come on this.  Read or not.  That’s up to you.  Stay tuned.

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A Question of Morality

“She would of been a good woman,” the Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

Flannery O’Connor “A Good Man is Hard to Find”

I’m not religious, not a “believer.” I have a low opinion of organized religion, and am wary of “faith,” especially the unquestioning kind. That said, I believe there is room in this world for spirituality and I can respect it. There are many religious people who are deeply spiritual, and far more who are not. And there are some very spiritual people who do not ascribe to any belief system. It’s pretty complicated.

I function comfortably in a world of believers, a society where people seek out and embrace supernatural explanations for the complexities of their lives, and govern themselves in accordance with ancient rituals that are increasingly difficult to reconcile with the world today. I’m okay with that. I don’t get all frothy when people reject what science has confirmed because it goes against superstitions that have been handed down from thousands of years ago. I’m more troubled when they try to compel others to do the same. Fortunately, I live in a society where that’s pretty hard to do on a large scale, at least overtly.

True, there are small manifestations of religion that fill our culture, but I’m not going to get all bent out of shape if a well-meaning Christian says, “God bless you,” when I sneeze, or wishes me a “Merry Christmas.” I ask only they also don’t get upset if I don’t do so. When they take the equally well-meaning “Happy holidays,” as being somehow an attack on their beliefs, then there’s a problem. But, for the most part, things are fine, and I’m happy to live in a pluralistic society that can be so dominated by one particular faith, yet not become totally repressive.

Where I do get unhappy is in a rather odd place, one that comes of the melding of religion and morality. There exist things like the “Christian Yellow Pages,” where people can seek out businesses run by alleged Christians. The assumption is that a Christian will just innately be moral and ethical and trustworthy. Why? Because he believes in Jesus? More to the point, because he professes a belief in Jesus? Like someone wouldn’t lie about that? Come on, a dishonest person won’t hesitate to say whatever you want to hear. And even if he is Christian, that doesn’t make him innately more moral. Actually, the fact that he’s making such a big show out of being Christian is, as I understand it, antithetical to the actual teachings of Christianity.

But the real problem is the presumption of morality. This goes beyond business practices. Many religious people believe that a believer is more moral than a non-believer. They hold this perspective to the point that they think we need to emphasize religious practice, that we need to put religion back into the schools in order to make our children more moral. Underlying this entire premise is a very nasty assumption: not merely does religion instigate morality, but in fact in the absence of religion, people will not be moral. This is frightening.

When someone says that without religion we will not be moral, it tells me a great deal about that person. Whether or not it’s true that people cannot be moral in the absence of religion, it’s indisputable that he himself is only moral because of his religion. In other words, he only does the right thing because he believes in, and fears, some sort of divine retribution. Take away his faith, and he will become a savage.

People who are only moral because they believe some invisible superbeing is watching and keeping track aren’t moral at all. It’s said that the truest test of character is what we do when we think nobody is watching. If a believer behaves well only under threat from an all-seeing God, it’s not morality, it’s imposed behavior.

That’s why I submit that in fact non-believers are actually more moral than believers. A believer acts a certain way because he believes there is an eternal reward coming for doing so, and certain punishment for not. A non-believer, on the other hand, has no such motivation. He rejects the idea of an afterlife or reincarnation or anything else like that. He understands that this life is all we get, there are no second chances, nothing better waiting for us. When this life is over, that’s it. So he makes this life the best it can be.

And he realizes this is also true for everyone else. He, far more than the most crusading fundamentalist, understands how precious life is, in all its myriad forms. He will hesitate to kill because, unlike the believer who thinks it’s all part of God’s plan and the dead are on their way to paradise, the non-believer knows that killing takes away everything, and it can never be returned. This is why the rampant killing in our entertainments sickens me. Even in fiction, I am heartsick at a life snuffed out. Forever.

Yet our books and movies are full of killing, often done by supposedly good characters who then give no further thought to the monstrosity of what they have done. The victims didn’t matter because they weren’t major characters and, thus, their lives were unimportant. But all lives are important to someone, and a moral person never forgets that, even playing a computer game. In my book, there is death, and it’s always profound, and my characters cannot avoid the psychological consequences and moral implications. Alas, that may well make some people avoid my book, because the last thing they want is for morality to intrude on an exciting story. Not surprising, given the role religion plays in most of their lives.

Religion shields people from having to acknowledge the finality of death. It makes it easer to kill. Why else have so many wars and organized atrocities been done in the name of religion? When our conscience is imposed upon us, we are spared the burden of minding it ourselves. Now, I’m not one who says that if there were no religion, the world would be a better place (sorry Mr. Lennon, but it’s just not true). Human beings have an infinite capacity to be horrible to each other, and without religion, we’d find some other justification. But religion is a particularly good one, because rather than making us moral, it obviates our moral responsibility to each other, and thus frees us to justify the most heinous immorality as “God’s will.”

And I say that as a moral person who does not need to believe in God to be that way.

(ps I know this isn’t the follow-up to my last post as promised. But that’s still coming, so stand by.)

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In the Name of God

I have an overly large DVD collection, including some rather unusual items.  Among them is a sampling of works that have one thing in common: many people of a religious mindset find them highly offensive.  The main examples are Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and the animated TV series God, The Devil and Bob.  All of them not only generated considerable protest, but also efforts (sometimes successful) to get them banned.  As religion is a subject I find extremely interesting, these are programs that hold significant appeal for me.

The Last Temptation of Christ raised objections from people who did not like the idea of a fallable, ambivalent Jesus actually walking away from the cross in order to live out a normal life.  But what is often missed is the fact that this act, which makes up the last half hour of the film, is indeed a temptation.  In the ensuing vision he finds himself rejected by his followers and comes to realize the importance of his sacrifice and actually wants it to happen.  People who object should recall that Jesus does indeed waver.  Further, if Jesus was, as theology pertains, “fully human,” then to be human is to be weak and subject to temptation.  The film is an affirmation of Christ’s essential Humanity.

Life of Brian is often seen as an attack on Jesus, but in fact Jesus only appears briefly, at a distance, and is not in any way ridiculed.  What is instead ridiculed is mindless religious zeal, of the sort that allows the followers of the hapless Brian, who, having mistaken him for the Messiah, spend their time arguing about how he should be worshipped, corrupting what should be simple and clear.

God, The Devil and Bob was a series from the 1990’s that was part of the first wave of shows that attempted to capitalize on the runaway success of The Simpsons.  Created by an ordained minister, its title sums up the premise: God and the devil fight over the soul of a typical sitcom slob named Bob.  The series aired all of two episodes before being yanked.  People protested, no doubt, because God, voiced by James Garner, is depicted as a sunglass-wearing, tie-died aging hippie who is somewhat disappointed in his creation, while the Devil, voiced by Alan Cumming, is witty and charming and the most appealing character.  But then, doesn’t theology depict a God who is impatient?  And aren’t we told the Devil will be charming?  The series was a modern-day version of the medieval Mystery Play tradition, and inevitably affirmed faith and Christian values.

What’s particularly notable about the rather predictable response to these programs is not that people objected, but that they objected without actually having seen the things they were objecting to.  A clergyman who debated John Cleese about whether or not Life of Brian was blasphemous proudly stated he certainly did not see it.  This is just insanity.  To object to something, it is essential to understand it.  When I first heard about The Hunger Games, and was instantly revolted by the premise, I took it upon myself to read it, doing so in a single evening, so that I would know if my objections were justified (they were).

To raise objection to something sight-unseen merely because it sounds like it insults one’s personal beliefs is counter to everything that should be true of faith.  How weak is your faith if it cannot withstand parody, or even outright insult?  The fact is, no matter your beliefs, there will be people who do not share them, and may well find them objectionable.  Religious freedom means that I may not prevent you from practicing your beliefs, but I am not obligated to follow them myself.  That includes my right to do things your faith says are forbidden, whether it be words or actions.  Religious freedom does not mean you have the right to impose your values on everyone else.

And yet, despite my contempt for the people who consider my low opinion for religious practice an “attack” on Christianity, I still must hold them in comparatively high regard. At the release of these “offensive” works, they picketed theaters, boycotted the studio, and all the other things people do when outraged.

But nobody was killed.

Nobody poured into the streets, lighting fires, and killing innocent bystanders.  Nobody screamed “Death to Monty Python!”  They objected, and that was it.  And that, I confess, is the difference between Westernized religious practice, and the apparent mindset in much of the Muslim world (though certainly not all).  To commit murder in the name of God or Allah is beyond abhorrent.  Really, is Allah so weak that he needs anyone to defend him?  I suspect not.  And it’s no coincidence that such actions are one of the things that was satirized in Life of Brian.

To be fair, much of the animus that we see when riots break out because someone in the US makes a terrible movie that portrays Muslims poorly is due more to a sense of ongoing Western interventionism than actual religious fervor.  Certainly the anger of the rioters is exploited and increased by people with a political agenda.  And we must take into account that the freedom of expression we take for granted is largely unknown in the places where the rioting occurs, and in any case is not seen as favorably as it is here.  The rioters protest the US because in their own experience it is impossible for someone to independently produce an offensive film; where they are, government and religious authorities control all such things.  And the people there generally prefer it that way.  What we call “freedom” they might well call licentiousness and anarchy.  It’s a different world.

Not that that in any way justifies violence.  The makers of the terrible excuse for a film that generated the recent uprising have my contempt, but I do not dispute their right to be terrible.  They should not be enjoined from being offensive because it might lead to violence.  That’s nothing more than blaming the victim, like telling a rape victim it’s her own fault because she shouldn’t have been out there dressed like that.  Yes, there’s such a thing as personal responsibility, but it goes both ways, and if my actions lead someone else into violence, I may have been irresponsible, but it was the other who chose to engage in violence, and my hands are clean.

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