Handball, Popcorn and Jesus

I played handball when I was younger. I never got very good at it, but the game still left an impression on me.

My best memory of it was something surprising that happened one day after I’d been playing for a few months, something that had nothing at all to do with handball.

[By the way, this a repost from Dec. 2010]

When I was a kid, I could never toss up a piece of popcorn and catch it in my mouth. I don’t know whether it’s because I was just naturally clumsy or because I never had the desire to practice and get good at it, but … I was lousy at it.

And I don’t mean just not-very-good, I mean LOUSY. If you’d taken out a gun and threatened to shoot my entire family unless I caught at least 2 out of the next 10 popcorn kernels, I’d have gone through life as an orphan.

Heh. In the midst of writing this, figuring how to tell the story, I just realized that I remember the exact place and scene where what I’m about to tell you happened. It’s like my own private Apollo 11 “you never forget where you were” moment.

I’d just come home from a movie, and still had some popcorn in a bag. I was living in my old family house on Golden Street in Houston, and I was telling my roomie, Dan – an old friend of my brother’s – about the movie. And idly, in the midst of the telling, I tossed a piece of popcorn into the air. I fully expected it would bounce off my chest or my forehead, as usual, and land on the floor.

Instead, it went right into my mouth. And so did the next one. And the next. Over the next few minutes, I kept tossing and catching, tossing and catching, flawlessly. It was like I’d spent my entire young life unable to catch, and now suddenly I was unable to miss.

I figured out pretty quickly it was the handball. Had to be, because I wasn’t doing a darned thing different but that. The eye-hand coordination I was practicing in handball was bleeding across, unnoticed, into other activities, but I had failed to notice because I had done nothing, until this popcorn feat, that required any unusual level of coordination.

Which brings me, strangely enough, to an epiphany I had today about churches.

If you adopt the atheist viewpoint and take out all the details of religion, all that stuff about gods and devils and virgin birth and heaven and hell, you’re still left with this … social phenomenon. People go to churches, and something happens to them there.

What that something is, is this: They’re taught to believe that NOTHING is SOMETHING. Worse, they’re taught that their church’s particular nothing is, well, everything. That it’s the most important thing that exists. That it affects their lives in the deepest, most profound way, every second of the day, every day for as long as they live, and forever after.

If you’re even a little bit tuned into religion, or even if you’re an atheist but you haven’t yet really had the chance to think deeply about what religion is and what it does to you, that previous paragraph won’t really impress you all that much. You’ll think, “Yeah, so?”

But think: There’s this nothing. This non-existent thingie that somebody made up in their head. And then there’s the weirdly intense way people the world over react to it.

Say you’re in the city park one brisk fall day and you notice a man looking at a leaf on the sidewalk. You think it’s odd, so you watch from a distance. The guy calls someone else’s attention to it. And that other guy walks over and looks at it. He calls another person over to look at it, and that third guy calls two more friends. Soon there are a dozen people there looking at the leaf, commenting on it, admiring it. It makes the news, and next thing you know, a thousand people are there, crowding around, looking at the leaf on the sidewalk. They build a shed over the leaf, and then a marble shrine. The story goes worldwide, so that eventually there are millions of people thronging in your city, all there to see The Leaf, which is now roofed over by a soaring Leaf Cathedral.

As an observer, you’d just be dumbfounded. “Uh … what? You’re all looking at … a leaf? I mean, really? A leaf off a tree?”

Nothing – the next best thing to it, anyway – becomes Something. (But only to those people. To you it’s still nothing. A leaf.)

Precisely the same thing happens in churches, except it’s worse because, at the heart of it, there’s not even a leaf. But everything in a church exists to persuade people there IS something there. This is the very core reason for the existence of churches. The effort starts when you’re a baby and continues until you’re dead, generation to generation.

Church is a school for teaching gullibility.

That is a profoundly disturbing idea, isn’t it? But it isn’t the most profoundly disturbing part of this whole thing.

Because the trait of mind we’re talking about here, the one you learn in church, does not just apply in church. It crosses over, just as my handball skills crossed over into popcorn catching.

The most profoundly disturbing part is that, once you learn that gullibility, it applies to just about everything. Anyone can use it against you.

Politicians. Advertisers. Psychic frauds. Con men. State lotteries. Toy companies. Fast food outlets. “Health food” companies. Corporations of every stripe and spot.

Once you learn to be gullible, you are a perpetual prey animal for a web of predators so complex it boggles the mind.

I’d venture to say that nothing even comes close to equaling what churches accomplish in gullibility schooling. There is no other social institution I can even think of, much less one that rivals churches in teaching gullibility.

Church is THE prime school for spreading the damaging mental skill of believing things without proof. Of believing things in the face of contrary proof.

And it has existed in its many forms for thousands of years.

One final point:

We live in this moment in history and it all seems normal to us. With minor improvements, probably all of us consider the world today to be close to ideal.

But what if it isn’t ideal? What if it is so twisted, so sick, that an outsider coming here for the first time would look at us and just scream at the horror of it?

I suspect – not often, but when I think of something like what I’ve just written – that the history we’re living through is just that: Horror.

War. Child molesting priests. Teabaggers. Starving children. Fox News. Sarah Palin. Endangered wildlife. Global warming. All of it appearing NORMAL.

And behind it all, your church. The SCHOOL where you learn not to question, not to think, but to just accept what you’re told. Accept the way things are. Accept that this is all how it’s supposed to be, the best way it could be.

The school where you learn to be gullible.

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