Recently a friend linked this comic on Facebook and then asked me for my opinion. The initial comments, points and criticisms the comic starts out with are rich material for discussion. However, I have written about some of these elsewhere and I feel it would be too long to address all of them in one post. So I will focus on the main thesis or moral of the comic which comes at the end where it says this…
“Would you kill for your religion? Would you hurt, hinder, or condemn, in the name of your God? Yes? Then you probably suck at your religion. You should give it up… However, does your religion inspire you to help people? Does it make you happier? Does it help you cope with the fact that you are a bag of meat sitting on a rock in outer space and that someday you will die and you are completely powerless, helpless and insignificant in the wake of this beautiful cosmic shitstorm we call existence? Does it help with that? Yes? Excellent! Carry on with your religion! *Just keep it to your fucking self.”
From this comic as a whole, especially its concluding moral about evaluating the worth of a religion, there are three comments and reflections I want to make.
First, I caution people against scapegoating religion.
While the authors probably have a more nuanced opinion, I fear this comic exhibits a problem that I see in many agnostic/atheistic/irreligious peers and that is the scapegoating of religion.
We are all shaped by a complex set of beliefs that guide our behavior. This set of beliefs have been called a culture, a worldview, a religion, a mental grid, or a web of belief. However you conceptualize it or understand it, its function is the same. We use these webs of belief to interpret our experience in this world. These webs of belief govern our social relationship and interactions in this world and guide our own behavior. The word runs on these beliefs.
We all inherit this web of beliefs from those that come before us and thousands of small interactions in our life. Everyone has their own web of belief and no one can escape them. These beliefs show up in everything. Even this comic strip contains and is shaped by many beliefs held by its authors.
Spiritual or religious beliefs are but one part of these mental grids. Spiritual and religious organizations and interactions are just some of the things that shape our shared social and political realities, and drive our motivations for actions, both good and for evil.
There certainly is evil done in the name of religion or by explicitly religious people, but this is always only one part of the picture. The Norwegian shooter and the terrorists of 9/11 were religious persons (Christian and Muslim respectively) but their actions were motivated by a complicated set of national, historic, and personal factors. A number of these were not explicitly tied to or espoused by their religion. If this were not the case, every Muslim and Christian would be mass-murderers, which clearly they are not.
When we blame religion for the evil religious people do, when we wax philosophical like John Lennon did in Imagine, we over simply our incredibly complex world, we over simply incredibly complex people, we exhibit prejudice, we view things from a very limited scope and we excuse ourselves of examining ways in which we might be responsible for the evils blamed on religion.
For example if we simplistically blame Islam or the conflict between Christianity and Islam for 9/11 and pretend that without these things such an evil would never have happened we are being ridiculous. There are millions of Muslims who do not commit acts of terror. and while the terrorists were Muslims their actions were shaped by variety of forces things that had absolutely nothing to do with the spiritual beliefs of Islam and everything to do with a complex interplay of colonialism, terrorism, ideology, and U.S. foreign policy. We also fail to recognize the vast historic and present contributions Islam has made and continues to make to this world. We also fail to recognize how we might be complicity in system that contributes to international terrorism. I am not condoning or excusing their actions. What they did was evil. I’m suggesting blaming evil simplistically on religion is easy, but it is also short-sighted, wrong and a way we seek to excuse our own complicity in all of this.
Second, this comic brings up the issue of “private truth” vs. “public truth” and the problems with that regarding religion.
In a Western pluralistic societies shaped by the Enlightenment, Modern and Secular Humanism we have come to truth in two. There is private truth and public truth. Public truth is “truth” or “fact” that is verifiable with the hard sciences. Private truth is anything that cannot be verified with the hard science. Public truth is seen as truth that can be fairly entered into public discourse and guide our public policy that shapes our shared existence. Private truth is seen as a free area that people can believe whatever they want, so long as it only really impacts them or their family.
Religion in this paradigm is seen as a private truth. It is argued that religion and spiritual beliefs are not scientifically verifiable so they should remain at the private sphere of truth and therefore we should “keep it to our f*king self.”
Now, in theory this makes sense and I agree with it in many ways. I do not think Christians should impose their religious views on other citizens in the U.S. that do not share their religious convictions any more than I believe Muslims or Hindus should. However, I also realize that the current situation is one where secular humanism, capitalism and other ideologies and webs of belief run our nation and are given a privileged position. But that is another post altogether.
The problematic tension I want to highlight is that I do not think this works too well in the real world. Religion cannot be so easily separated and compartmentalized from all that we are. Compartmentalizing religion as distinct from the rest of our culture, worldview and identity is a very Modern and very Western notion. Hinduism did not exist as a world religion until Westerners “discovered” it. This does not mean Hindu practices and beliefs did not exist, it means Hindus did not conceptualize religion the way Westerners do.
In many (most?) cultures, the line between what it means to be a member of a religion and what it means to be a person from that nation/culture/ethnic group is very blurry if it exists at all. Cultures almost always have an official or unofficial state or cultural religion. Separating the beliefs, loyalties, and practice in a given culture from the religious beliefs commonly held in that culture, often for centuries, is not an easy task.
So what this means is that if you tell someone, “You’re religion is fine, but keep it to yourself and do not let it dictate your public actions or opinions that might influence the experiences of people who do not share your religious views.” You are problematically asking them to not be themselves in often fundamental ways as they live life. You are also saying the only valid opinions for public discourse and public policy are non-spiritual ones which may eliminate the vast majority of who they are and what they believe and why they do what they do.
To ask a Kuwaiti man to not be a Muslim in the public sphere is to ask him to not be himself. To ask me to not act like a follower of Jesus where it may contact others is to ask me to not be myself.
I have no solution to this, I am just saying this is the messy situation we find ourselves in our pluralistic society and global village.
This leads to my third comment which is more of a question really. Is there a way to judge between religions/worldviews/cultures/webs of belief?
How can we tell if someone’s religion/worldview/culture/web of belief sucks? How could anyone ever tell anyone else that their religion/worldview/culture/web of beliefs is better or that someone else’s is inferior? Which religion/worldview/culture/web of beliefs is the right one (if there is a right one) and which one has the right to be heard in our public discourse and shape our public policy? By what criteria do we appeal to as there are no criteria that we can form that escapes our own cultural/religious/worldview bias.
I, like every other human being on the planet ever, can only attempt to answer this question from the web of beliefs that has been shaped by my religious, spiritual and cultural experiences and teachings.
In one respect, I would actually agree with the comic on this one.
I am a committed follower of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ teachings are recorded in the Bible, which I understand to be authoritative in my life at the very least regarding spiritual matters and the teachings of Jesus. I want to highlight two of Jesus’ teachings.
First, Jesus taught that all of the commandments in the Bible and the teachings of the Prophets (that would be all of the things God tells His people to do and all of the things God has correction and discipline He has offered through human intermediaries) can be summed up in two things.
Love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22)
It should be noted that Jesus was actually only asked which was the greatest commandment, and then Jesus voluntarily added the second. The inference I make is that Jesus was essentially saying, “You won’t be able to do the first, without doing the second.”
Second, Jesus often taught in parables, or hypothetical stories that pack a very real and concrete teaching. The most pertinent one in this situation is the parable of the good Samaritan which I will leave posted here followed by my concluding arguments.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan
[Some basic background information so this parable makes sense: Priests and Levites were important religious officials and leaders in Jesus’ day. They did the right things and had the right heritage, training and status in society to act as representatives for God and leaders of God’s people. Samaritans on the other hand were people Jews whose heritage had been mixed when Israel was conquered and their religious practices were now equally mixed. Jews, like Jesus, those in his audience, and the victim in this story were not supposed to associate with or even touch Samaritans.]
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” [Jesus] replied. “How do you read it?”
He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
In this parable on what it means to love our neighbor Jesus teaches two things. First, the person who is deemed to have helped their neighbor is the person who has helped their neighbor. Having the right lineage, believing the right things, doing the right rituals, having the right kind of position, having money, etc. do not count.
Second, Jesus defines our neighbor as everyone, no matter how different from us, especially and including those we have been taught to hate, fear or shun.
From all this, as a follower of Jesus, I have to conclude that there are two fundamental ways to judge a culture/religion/worldview/web of beliefs. The first is if it aims at shaping people to worship and love the one true God of Israel (the comic obviously does not agree with this). The second is where I believe the comic and the teachings of Jesus would actually coincide: you can judge between different cultures/religions/worldviews/web of beliefs by how effectively they shape people into humans that actually and concretely love others, especially those who are not like them.