The Language of God: Rusty Containers

The Language of God, Chapter 2

By B.J. Marshall

Chapter 2 reminds me of a Tim Minchin song, Storm, where one line goes “Keeps firing off clichés with startling precision / Like a sniper using bollocks for ammunition.” The next theme Collins discusses in this chapter involves addressing all the harm done in the name of religion and wondering how anyone could subscribe to the tenets of any religion that perpetrates such wrongs in the world. He gives two answers, but one is really a diversion: 1) keep in mind all the good that churches have done, and 2) the church is made of fallen people. Basically, the church and its people are “rusty containers” so you shouldn’t equate it with the pure water of the Moral Law.

Prior to my leaving the church, I had no problems giving generously to it. But my leaving has caused me to think this over more deeply. I’m sure the church does some good in the world, but it’s grossly inefficient and highly particular about doling out those funds. The Church of England’s Archbishop’s Council has an overview of their annual budget:

  • 11,800,000 pounds for training for ministry
  • 10,300,000 pounds for national church responsibilities
  • 830,000 pounds for pension contributions
  • 3,300,000 pounds for clergy retirement housing
  • 1,500,000 pounds for “making a real difference to those whose lives are trapped in poverty”

So out of 27.7 million pounds in donations, the church only sends 5.4% to charity? I have not been able to find statistics on how much in donations to other Christian churches actually go to charity, but I have found some other pertinent information. Just two examples here: The Mormon Church spent $3 billion on a shopping mall in Salt Lake City, and spends less than one percent on helping the poor.

My wife used to work as secretary for a Roman Catholic parish. She said that she felt fine knowing that the donations of parishioners were going to help pay for others’ incomes. I tried to explain as tactfully as I could (knowing that these were very dangerous waters I was treading in) that people donating to charities should look to pay as few administrative expenses as possible. She countered that the Church was actually providing a service to its parishioners, so it was not just engaged in charity work. I decided not to pursue the argument further, thinking that it wouldn’t help matters to point out how misguided I thought the Church’s “service” was.

Collins’ evasion tactic is made funnier still by the examples he presents. In arguing how the church has played pivotal roles in “supporting justice and benevolence” (p.40), he cites Moses’ leading the Israelites out of bondage. There is absolutely no evidence for this. Another case of the church supporting justice and benevolence: “William Wilberforce’s ultimate victory in convincing the English Parliament to oppose the practice of slavery.” Really, you mean the slavery that the Bible itself endorses? Interesting.

Onto Collins’ second point: the church being comprised by rusty containers of fallen men. He asserts that the church has done some pretty bad stuff throughout history, but that you can’t blame the pure, clean water of spiritual truth. He continues by listing some examples of violence that “sully the truth of religious faith.” What’s worse, Collins thinks that “[p]erhaps even more insidious and widespread [than the violence done throughout history] is the emergence in many churches of a spiritually dead, secular faith, which strips out all of the numinous aspects of traditional belief, presenting a version of spiritual life that is all about social events and/or tradition, and nothing about the search for God” (p.41). What’s more insidious than the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, or Islamic terrorism? How about blasé modern worship in community-centered settings. I mean, I can handle genocide and torture. But all these spaghetti suppers, church group outings, and other non-traditional crap have just got to go! I guess genocide and torture does get closer to the pure, clean, petty, violent bully of a god we find in the Bible.

Let’s be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, though, because atheism is just as bad, Collins warns. He points to the Marxist Soviet Union and Mao’s China. In this post, I won’t go into the details of why atheism has nothing to do with communism’s failure, except to say I think that some factors that play heavily into it are a lack of incentive to excel, a disconnect between prices and the supply and demand of goods, and a gross disparity in property rights. In any event, for Collins to point to atheism as if it were the sole cause of atrocity is preposterous. “In fact, by denying the existence of any higher authority, atheism has the now-realized potential to free humans completely from any responsibility not to oppress each other” (p.43). I suppose this is always a possibility, although it has a hard time explaining how atheists are just as ethical as church-goers. Collins can’t see that a moral system can be built around individual desires in a cooperative environment.

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