How to suck at your religion

Oh dear. Matthew Inman of the marvelous web-comic, The Oatmeal, seems to have experienced that exquisite twitch all modern atheists are doomed to experience — the I-know-what’s-best-for-you-silly-religious-people-come-heed-me spasm. This particular train of thought requires the thinker ignore the vast majority of Christian belief — which is entrenched in reason — and focus solely on minority caricatures of the creationist or the wailing-out evangelical, caricatures firmly established and grounded in The Holy Internet Worldview. Having thus defined the term “religion”, the moral high ground is taken, the sneers are unleashed, and all religious people fear and tremble, for atheism has demonstrated itself as supremely reasonable, authoritative, scientific, and gosh-darnit it’s a wonder everyone just doesn’t convert on the spot. Check it out.

Now I know it’s an impossible task, rebutting with clunking prose what is claimed by fantastic comics, but someone’s got to try, if only for this reason: It’s no kindness to the atheist to let him forever believe that the religious have all the intellectual history of a WBC preacher. I mean goodness, what if he stumbles upon a Dominican? The shock would kill him. Thus and therefore and onwards then, in that frustrating step-by-step manner:

Right, because this here is a totally non-judgmental comic.

Okay, pushing past the I-don’t-want-to-address-the-question-of-whether-an-embryo-is-a-human-life-I’ll-just-make-the-bishop-character-blame-devils-lol-isn’t-religion-stupid-and-evasive and moving towards the actual issue: Embryonic stem cell research, from a purely scientific perspective, sucks. In the past thirty years of research, there hasn’t been one single human disease cured. Not one. No success. Can’t stress this enough. Have thus resorted to sentence fragments.

Adult stem cell research on the other hand, fully supported by the Catholic Church, is awesome. It has been used — sucessfully — to cure lupus, to treat blindness and vision loss, to put severe Crohn disease in remission, to cure rheumatoid arthritis, to heal diseased hearts, to put freaking brain tumors in remission, to cure certain types of ovarian cancer, testicular cancer, lymphoma, and leukemia (Yes Mr. Inman, leukemia (the disease mentioned in your comic —leukemia, (pronounced leukemia, a disease which an overwhelming ass-ton of studies prove that adult stem cells can treat (sorry, had to fit all the studies in somehow)))).

Now let’s do some incredibly complex thinking here: We have on the one hand a potentially unethical treatment that’s never been shown to work. On the other — an undoubtedly ethical treatment that has produced splendid results, results who are walking around whole and healthy and can testify to the fact. The question is this: Is the fact that the Catholic Church supports the successful treatment while opposing the unsuccessful one hindering the advancement of medicine? Don’t think so. Neither does the State of California, which has ended funding of embryonic stem cell research. If this is the oppressive, close-minded attitude of the Catholic Church towards science, I’d say we could use a lot more of it.

As to the Galileo Affair, if I might be spared a moment to point out three fun facts, provided in part by George Sim Johnston:

1. That this is the only event in 2000 years of Church history that atheists can point to in order to claim that the Church is opposed to Science seems to indicate that the Church is not in fact opposed to Science.

2. The Church did not say that Galileo was teaching heresy. They rightly pointed out that if the earth did orbit the sun then there would be a shift in the position of a star observed from the earth on one side of the sun, and then six months later from the other side. Galileo was not able with the best of his telescopes to discern this “stellar parallax.” (This was a valid scientific objection, and it was not answered until 1838, when Friedrich Bessel succeeded in determining the parallax of star 61 Cygni.)

The Church gave Galileo the following offer: Copernicanism might be considered a hypothesis, one even superior to the Ptolemaic system, until further proof could be adduced. He refused it. Everyone had to believe in Copernicanism, despite the lack of evidence, and despite Galileo’s obviously wrongheaded claim — that the planets orbit the sun in perfect circles. This still wasn’t a problem until he tried to make his argument on theological grounds. (An irony that atheists remain blissfully unaware of, that the man they lift up as a martyr for scientific discovery was actually a martyr for bad theology.)

3. When Galileo was brought to the Inquisition for his interpretation of Scripture it was by the testimony of a rather stupid priest, Caccini, whose claims were “a web of hearsay, innuendo, and deliberate falsehood,” historian Arthur Koestler writes. The Inquisition dropped all charges against him.

Following this up, the Consultor of the Holy Office and Master of Controversial Questions (a Title which the existence of alone makes me proud of my religion) Cardinal Robert Bellarmine told Galileo it was perfectly acceptable to maintain Copernicanism as a working hypothesis, and if there were “real proof” that the earth circles around the sun, “then we should have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of Scripture which appear to teach the contrary…” Basically, until you have proof, stop trying to interpret Scripture. Galileo ignored this, continued campaigning, and was then brought to the Inquisition, and put under house-arrest, where he died a mass-going, daily-prayer Catholic.

This is not to say that the actions of the Church hierarchy were just. This is simply to say that the myth of Galileo as proof of the Church’s hatred of Science is silly. The Church developed the Scientific Method, for poop’s sake. Moving on to Inman’s next characteristic of sucking at your religion:

I sympathize with this complaint, I truly do. I think, however, that it denies the nature of actual belief. If we believe that murder is wrong, and we truly hold this belief as vital, essential to our well-being and the well-being of the world, the idea of not teaching this belief to our children is unimaginably bizarre. The idea of saying, “Well sweetie, some people think killing others is always wrong, others think it’s okay in certain situations like war, and others think it’s always okay to work in their own self-interest or in the interest of their deeply held religious or ideological beliefs, and that killing others for the sake of those beliefs is okay. What do you think?”

Of course this makes no sense. Why not? Because the idea that murder is wrong is — for a lot of us — something we really, truly believe. The nature of belief makes us apply this idea — that murder is wrong — to the whole world. It’s not just wrong for me, it’s wrong for terrorists, extremists, warmongers, serial killers, and politicians. It is — yes — wrong for my child. Beliefs, in order to be beliefs at all, are universal in quality.

So to the Christian who truly believes those bizarre ideas of, oh I dunno, all nature having a cause, and that final cause — necessarily outside of nature — being supernatural, this is a little silly. For the Christian who believes (by the observation that human beings naturally long for perfection but cannot have it) that there exists a lost state of perfection for which we are made — not sharing this with your child is as alien an idea as not sharing the belief that murder is wrong.

And here’s the fascinating part: Let children choose for themselves, and it has been shown that they’ll choose the supernatural. Religious belief is an inherent part of human nature: That the Christian parent takes this natural, human belief and roots it specifically in human history — in the person of Jesus Christ — (though you’ll surely disagree) is not scary-evil brainwashing. In fact, letting kids choose for themselves is the surest way to make more religious people. Forcing religion down children’s throats is a sure way to make them rebel against you and become atheists.

No, it doesn’t. You know what does give people weird anxieties about sexuality? The current (oh-so-secular) sexual culture. We’re looking at 1 in 5 women having been raped, 1 in 3 reporting sexual abuse, 1 in 4 teenage girls contracting an STD, 2/3 of pregnancies unplanned, untold millions addicted to pornography, 63% of married women reporting they’d rather be watching a movie than having sex with their husbands, and the general degradation of the human body into an advertising, money-making machine.

Now this is not to say that a false view of Christian teaching can’t screw up your understanding of sexuality. Sure it can. This is simply to point out the obvious: The current, prevalent, secular understanding of sexuality has undoubtedly screwed up many, many people.

The basic tenet of Christianity’s teaching on sexuality, that sex, as a physical, chemical, biological, emotional and spiritual bond is a) best saved for the willful and promised bond marriage, and that b) it is both unitive and procreative and should be treated as such. If this gives you anxieties, there’s other issues going on.

This was remarkably fair-minded. I’m not sure if Inman meant to point out that liberal and conservative devotion both amount to religious belief, but that’s basically what gets across here. But as to voting based on religious beliefs in general, there’s an abyss between the atheist and the Christian that I fear uncrossable. If a religion is merely making a few claims — perhaps that Christ came, died, and rose — then of course voting solely on religious beliefs would be foolish. If a religion is comprehensive — that is if it claims to contain within its teachings a comprehensive view of the human person, his nature and ultimate end, and thereby his institutions, governments, societies etc. — then of course you vote on your religious beliefs! As a Catholic, I can’t help but trust 2000 years of intellectual and philosophical tradition over my strong desire to talk crap about other people, have lots of sex and not give to the poor.

As to the rest of Inman’s points, that religion shouldn’t be primarily validated by other people believing it, and that it shouldn’t make its critics fear for their lives, I absolutely agree with. His closing then:

Thank you so very much for your kind permission, sir. But allow me to give a more detailed explanation of why, precisely, I will carry on with my religion.

While my religion makes me happy (sometimes) and inspires me to help others (if I let it), and absolutely gives some explanation as to my existence on this dear rock, so does Oprah.

I carry on with my religion for no other reason than that I believe it to be true. This is the only reason to hold a religious belief. This is the only reason to hold any belief.  All else — from the happiness involved to the striking tradition of art, music, philosophy, education, charity, and culture that my religion has produced — is reaction to this Truth.

So how does one truly suck at their religion? By following the advice of Mr. Inman and deconstructing our religion until it becomes agreeable to the current standards of the world. We are to be happy, helpful, and full of purpose. Never mind believing ourselves to be right.

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