When you talk all day about God’s love and God’s mercy and God’s forgiveness and God’s grace and God’s compassion, it’s easy to convince yourself that you must yourself be an especially loving, merciful, forgiving, gracious, and compassionate person, even when you’re not. Similarly, some atheists think that banging on about reason and evidence all day makes them in fact especially careful thinkers when in practice they may not be much better than the average person in most areas.
This is not to say that Christians are never loving, merciful, forgiving, or compassionate, nor that atheists are never rigorous thinkers. The point is that giving lip service to a value priority and carrying it out in careful, conscientious practice are two wholly different things entirely. And the point of this post is to take a few minutes to dwell on the dark side and its distinct lure to those Christians who have convinced themselves they are the most on the side of righteousness of all people. My thesis is not so broad or unfair as to accuse Christians of only having a dark side or of loving it alone.
To take a brief moment of preemptive self-inspection, I will note on our side, that we atheists are defenders of the very principle of sufficient evidence itself (that beliefs should be apportioned to rational evidence) often against smart people who bafflingly illogically try to bend the rules of reason with anti-rational epistemology for the sake of pandering to outdated superstitions, reality-resistant metaphysics, and politically regressive traditional ideas. It is easy to think that this alone makes us especially rational, but really by itself this only makes us minimally committed in the proper way to affirming the value of reason and not yet far along on the path to practicing rational thinking with the scruples of scientists and other meticulous academics.
And in the case of Christians, all the talk about love and all the fervent absolutist commitment to the ideal that righteousness and purity are always to be loved most, can create a certain tingle of excitement when they get to dwell on the dark side of their religious beliefs. Christians love the devil because, let’s face it, a great villain is always more interesting than a goody two shoes do-no-wrong hero. And even their hero has a dark side seen all throughout both Testaments and even in some of Jesus’s actions, and they like to dwell on those bits too. They like that Jesus does not only stand up for the little guy but that he threatens hell fire and flips over tables in the process. So Christians, assuming themselves to be normally on the side of the good and the righteous and love, etc., relish with no small amount of glee their outlets for letting their violent imaginations run wild.
This is no small part of why they love a gruesome depiction of Jesus’s crucifixion. It’s as Bible-approved a blood fantasy as they can get. And they get to feel all sorts of repulsion and guilt and they can inflict guilt on others. Whenever the emotions ratchet up, Christianity thrives. It has never at its core been a truly rational religion—however good a job some of the best minds in Western history did for centuries in constructing putatively Christian philosophical systems and defenses. Christianity thrives on making people feel bad about themselves and making people afraid of evil.
Jesus’s over the top, emotionally blackmailing suffering is great for making people feel bad about themselves while simultaneously satisfying and sanctifying their all-too-human bloodlust so that it is spiritually sanitized for their consciences. And the Devil is a rich possibility for fantasizing about malevolence in its purest, most unadulterated form. Since they are putting up a “warning sign” by dreaming about and arguing for the reality of all his twisted maliciousness they feel unrestrained in their presentation of him and of hell.
They are willing to put on gruesome Hell Houses which shamelessly aim to terrify children in reality, and not just with suspension of disbelief. Unlike a real haunted house where children are to leave laughing at a good thrill which their parents reassured them the whole way was not real and just for fun, the Hell House aims to convince children that the horror show is real and that it is a real life threat to them that they will spend an eternity being tortured and surrounded by violent sights unless they convert that very night. Al Stefanelli has a very good post up today walking readers through the step by step process by which these unconscionably cruel, reckless, and unrestrained manipulation schemes are designed.
For literalist Christians, the devil is not a self-conscious artistic representation and projection of humanity’s dark side and temptations, or of our vulnerability to tragic misfortunes as though they come from malevolent forces, but he is a real, crude, unironic caricature of whoever or whatever the Christian perceives as the spiritual enemies of the Church.
And with a self-deceived overly clean conscience, the Christian, so used to being a champion of love and mercy and forgiveness for merely using these words a lot when talking and singing, feels a nice swath of latitude to imaginatively demonize the Enemy and his agents on Earth. The rested limbs are limbered for viciousness when taking a break from talking so much about love to hate a little on the enemies of the Church and of God Himself. How can you be immoral when you’re defending The Author of Morality Himself? Let loose and hate a little, you’ve earned it!
And, similarly, boy does it feel good to take a break from 99% of the time talking about turning the other cheek to dwell a little bit on how God’s not some pansy. And, in the case of American Evangelicals, to boldly and unashamedly assert how righteous, hard-working, overtaxed, Christian Americans and their righteous shining city on a hill, the exceptional America Herself, should not be pansies either but should get their “fair share” by defunding at home or blowing up abroad whoever stands in the way! The vindictive, “sinner”-hating, Other-eradicating Old Testament genocides and the Other-eradicating war on terror and torture regime tactics are like cool glasses of water—real tonics for getting back in touch with your macho side. Sure, God’s a God of love and America’s a peaceful and exceedingly noble nation, but fuck with Him or fuck with us and you will be fucked harder than you ever dreamed.
He’ll wipe out every man, woman, and child because he’s a Jealous God and a Righteous God. And jealous righteous people (like Christians!) have every right to be merciless with their enemies and deserve fawning thanks for their graciousness when they choose not to. This arrogant tyrant God who Christians defend as totally justified in torturing people in hell forever for daring to think for themselves, being autonomous, and not loving someone who bullies them into submission, is not only an outlet for venting the pent up aggression that comes from talking about the “God of love” all day but is also a dangerous role model that leads sometimes to self-righteously, un-self-aware, and vindictive politics.
All of this reminds me something clueless I read from RELEVANT—a magazine which is allegedly about “God. Life. Progressive Culture.” but which ran a decidedly unprogressive article which argued that Christian art’s problem is that it has become too prudish and preachy and lost that edginess wherein the Bible was willing to be all cool and genocidal and stuff while being uncompromising about “Biblical truth and morality”:
It is a tough argument to think modern Christians cannot handle a simple kiss or rough language when God allowed Joshua to slaughter thousands behind the walls of Jericho.
See that, man, Christians should be allowed to see kissing because God let Joshua be all badass and kill people! They can handle the tough stuff because when they read the Bible they don’t flinch with moral horror at mass slaughter of human beings but celebrate it! He goes on too:
We must be open about our faith. That is why it is far more important for the filmmaker to be identified as Christian than his work be labeled as such. Even a pagan can make a movie and label it Christian.
People have a natural hunger for knowledge. They desire truth no differently than they desire water and nutrition. We, as Christ-followers, are the keepers of truth; all we need to do is tell it.
When a Christ-follower produces a film that speaks to Biblical truth and morality, he has made a Christian film. The product itself should not carry the label; the artist is the Christ-follower. His fruit will bear His name.
And Christian artists don’t get it that they don’t need to preach, they can just tell the truth because, of course, Christians are “the keepers of truth”. (Meanwhile, I would note that innumerable Christian artists are successfully being truthful and making great art but that truthful art is not credited with being “Christian” because the truths they reveal are much more complicated than distinctively and self-consciously Christian thinking is capable of admitting. For one thing, anyone actually truthful and actually artistic in the 21st Century could never bring themselves to ridiculously claim that Christians are “the keepers of truth”. But I digress.)
Before making a few closing observations about one remaining dark subtext and indulgence of Christianity, here are a pair of (astonishingly cheesy and hilarious) videos which as a teenager I loved dearly in no small part because I thought if I could show my non-Christian friends these Christian videos which featured cool bad stuff, it would make my faith cool and attractive to them (rather than, er, pathetic).
These videos also reveal something Nietzsche was fond of pointing out, and that is the obsession with feeling disempowered by those outside the church and fantasizing about gaining super-powers from God to crush your enemies. The religion of the explicit renunciation of power as implicitly the religion of power-worship of the crudest, most simplistic, and uncareful kind. Or, as Nietzsche was prone to characterize it, a religion of hate in the guise of a religion of love. As I argued yesterday, I don’t think the hate is conscious, deliberate, or experienced as hate, or the otherwise good people who participate in it would not be able to remain within the faith. But it is structured into the dualistic logic of good and evil, disempowerment and empowerment, etc., which drives the faith’s general view of the world—even in some of its most otherwise progressive forms and in secularized progressive movements related to Christian logic.