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.

Other posts in this series:

The Atheist Community Is Diversifying
Atlas Shrugged: The Craft of Not Acting
Why Atheism Is a Force for Good
SF/F Saturday: Terry Pratchett’s Death
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    I am at present reading Under the Banner of Heaven by John Krakauer. It tells a damning story of abusive practices by Fundamentalist Mormons, i.e. those who broke away from the mainstream Mormon church and continue to practice polygamy. He makes a pretty good case that these practices are not random evil acts by people who happen to be religious (i.e. rusty containers), but that polygamy is firmly rooted in Mormon theology, as is the demand for obedience by the flock to a strong leader who uses alleged revelation to keep the flock in line.

    Let’s be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, though, because atheism is just as bad, Collins warns.

    Show me the baby. Show me the freakin’ baby!
    I don’t believe there is a baby.

  • CSN

    I too am an ababyist.

    I also just read Banner of Heaven, so here’s another recommendation for that. Dragged kicking and screaming into modernity as ever, and yet we’re the ones who don’t understand what these religions are really about? It’s all there in black and white.

  • J. James

    Wow. Churches are a force for charity. We haven’t heard that before. I am so impressed by the…..blah. I am so tired of that argument. So tired, in fact, it makes me want to commit seething, diabolical EVIL. But nevermind that. This latest tidbit is yet another piece of useful cannon fodder. It would be more useful if the ADHD-stricken Fundies I’ve met don’t simply bounce from one subject to another after being shot down.(No offense to the creative and vibrant Atheists.)

  • Valhar2000

    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.

    Groupthink, devotion to dogma, ideological purity, denial of reality when it contradicts with established premises, personality cults and single villain ideologies also have a lot to do with the failures of these systems, and, lo and behold, all these defects are to be found in religious societies.

    Socialist economies in Europe that did not have these features have been much more successful, without the need for religious googledygook.

  • Tom

    About your remark about a lack of incentive to excel in communism – you imply excellence to be inherently desirable even without external incentive, otherwise you’d not have bemoaned the apparent lack of it in the Soviet Union (and I have my doubts about that – in certain areas where men were granted the freedom and resources to excel, they did. Unfortunately, the threat of the Gulag might also have been something of a motivator, which skews things a bit), but surely that is its own incentive? Additional incentives imposed on it may or may not help, but can it not stand on its own? Don’t some religions and philosophies, in fact, make a big deal about excellence via self-improvement for its own sake?

    I recall a certain rather good animation, which might even have been referenced on this very weblog, that makes some observations about the nature of financial motivation:

    You may find it interesting; I certainly did. The concepts of profit and purpose motives, I think, may have particular relevance to your posts on public infrastructure.

  • Ritchie

    Double kudos just for the Tim Minchin reference! ;)

  • Tom

    Oh bugger – please disregard the last sentence of my last post; I was thinking of a post on a different blog.

  • L.Long

    For every so called ‘good’ thing the church has done I can point to 5 atrocities.
    Just the witch burning of the 11th thru 16th centuries can keep my evidence box over flowing, and I never got to the inquisitions, heretic killings, the crusades, and science & medical suppression.
    Yes they do great good in Africa, helping to save and feed a few poor folk while convincing thousands to die from aids. Ya they are so good!!!

  • Twin-Skies

    By Collin’s reasoning, one can argue that groups like Hezbollah aren’t all bad, because despite their attacks on civilians and use of them as human shields, they still offer free education and medical programs.

    Or that the mafia also does community service even if they’re criminals, or that McDonald’s is a health store because it’s begun serving salads.

    An organizations good deeds should never be used as a justification for their wrongdoing, damn it.

  • TEP

    And, at the risk of invoking a certain oft-cited ‘law’, the Nazis operated soup kitchens during the Great Depression, providing much needed assistance to those unable to afford bread. Presumably, then we should therefore judge them on the good work they did, and not on the mistakes the fallible and imperfect followers of Nazi doctrine made. Just because there were some bad Nazis doesn’t mean we’re justified in blaming Nazism for their actions, and disregarding all the nice things some Nazis did.

  • anna

    Many nations where very few people believe in religion, such as Sweden, are doing quite well. In fact, nations with fewer religious believers tend to have a higher standard of living than nations with many:

    Excepting America, true, but we’re falling behind as more and more of our populace dismisses science in favor of New Age garbage.

    The trouble with Communism is not atheism, but the lousy economic system, the tyranny and secret police, and outlawing religion rather than it simply falling away due to a higher educated populace.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Another problem with Communism is the willingness to substitute dogma, i.e. the party line, in place of actual facts. When someone brings up Soviet communism, one of the first things to spring to my mind is Lysenkoism.

  • Stephen P

    The communists worshipped a higher power just as religious people do. The only difference was that the higher power of the communists actually existed: namely the communist government (“dictatorship of the proletariat”). Of course the virtues attributed to it were just as fictional as those of a god. And criticism of it was suppressed with a vigour that any theocrat would have been proud of.

  • kennypo65

    Religion is a business without a product. It’s a scam, pure and simple. Instead of a Nigerian prince they have a Jewish zombie, but the con is the same.