You Call That Religion?

This is a guest post by Leah of Unequally Yoked. Adam is on vacation.

Spoiler Alert: the post below discusses the final number of the musical The Book of Mormon.

The Associated Press, in a review titled “Zany Musical ‘The Book of Mormon’ Will Convert You” said despite the sacrilege you might expect from a show imagined by the creators of South Park, the production was ultimately “pro-religion.”  Or, more precisely:

Ultimately, believe it or not, this is a pro-religion musical, or at least a story about the uplifting power of stories. Far from being nihilistic, the moral seems to endorse any belief system — no matter how crazy it sounds — if it helps do good. Amen to that. Consider us converted.

It’s not often that atheists have occasion to make common cause with fundamentalists, but the increasingly diffuse definition of religion the AP and others are using is actually bad for both sides.  For religious people, the danger is clear enough: the vague moral therapeutic deism embraced by these dull heretics offers an out from every hard teaching or structure of religious authority.

At the end of the show, the Mormon missionaries have strayed from their theology but decide to stick around to offer what comfort they can to the African village they’ve tried to convert.  When their doctrine doesn’t fit the situation, they just change it around or invent new scriptures to lend weight to their moral intuitions.  In the finale number (“Tomorrow is a Latter Day“), they proudly preach their new, flexible dogma:

I am a Latter Day Saint!

I help all those I can.

I see my friends through times of joy and sorrow.

Who cares what happens when we’re dead?

We shouldn’t think that far ahead.

The only Latter Day that matters is tomorrow!

Now, I hate to ever end up on the same side as David Brooks (“Creed or Chaos” 4/21/11), but we atheists are also hurt by this spiritual movement.  Defining the diffuse but well-meant spirituality of the schismatic Mormons in the finale as essentially religious leaves atheists out in the cold.  If a general desire to do good for others, divorced from any creed or Authority is limited to religion, it’s no wonder that so many Americans doubt that atheists have any moral inclinations and are therefore unwilling to vote us into public office.

Christians steeped in orthodoxy complain that too many of their brothers and sisters in Christ are substituting their own judgement for God’s.  They’re correct, and we atheists ought to work to get these so-called Christians to own up to it.  The Brits were right on with their “If You’re Not Religious, For God’s Sake Say So!” campaign to encourage nonbelievers to identify as atheists on the census; weakly-affiliated parishoners boost the numbers and credibility of creeds they no longer profess.

We end up on the same team as the defenders of the faith; we’re pushing people to pick a side.  While they offer apologetics, we’re trying to heighten the contradictions and get people to admit that they’ve already concluded their faith is untenable, they just need to come out and say it.  Moral Therapeutic Deism lets believers shrug off all the challenging or horrifying aspects of their faith; it gives them permission to be lazy thinkers.

The broad definitions of religion and spirituality supported by Book of Mormon and confirmed by the Associated Press may help to degrade religion, reducing it to a social gathering instead of a spiritual communion, but that kind of victory is ultimately bad for our cause.  It leaves us no room to develop and offer a compelling atheist philosophy and morality.

Atlas Shrugged: The Craft of Not Acting
SF/F Saturday: Terry Pratchett’s Death
A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 11
New on the Guardian: Beyond Debating God’s Existence
  • Yahzi

    The South Park guys are essentially pro-faith (remember the episode where the moral was, when atheists start talking a lot of shit comes out of their mouth?) Which is odd for guys who spend a lot of time pointing out how bad religion is. Has it not occurred to them that if you’re making up theology as you go along, pretty soon someone will make up theology about how it’s OK to [insert crime here]?

    South Park is known for the most offensive mockery you can imagine. The fact that they do it to atheists as well as religion always strikes me as a plus, because it demonstrates that atheism can withstand mockery, while religion can’t. Go ahead, mock us with the worst you can come up with: if it’s funny, we’ll laugh, because it does our cause no damage at all. Religion, on the other hand, simply cannot withstand the loss of dignity, because gravitas is all their arguments have.

    So go for it, South Park. Reduce religion to a “feel-good” exercise. Make self-identification as an orthodox member socially unacceptable. The step past vagueness is called irrelevance. Meanwhile I’ll continue to mock moderate Christians by pointing out how their views actually are the same as the extremist’s views. Harold Camping, it’s your cue!


  • Sabio Lantz

    The broad definitions of religion and spirituality supported by Book of Mormon and confirmed by the Associated Press may help to degrade religion, reducing it to a social gathering instead of a spiritual communion, but that kind of victory is ultimately bad for our cause. It leaves us no room to develop and offer a compelling atheist philosophy and morality.

    This is the argument I see you making — tell me if I am wrong:
    (a) increasing the number of self-declared atheists will help decrease the strangle-holds of religions.
    (b) broading the definition of religion (into Deism, Social Club …) will mean the number of atheists won’t increase.
    (c) Therefore broadening the definition of religion is undesirable.

    I agree with (a), but I think “(d) the strangle-holds of religion can be decrease by transforming religions too”. Thus, though I agree with (b), I do not think (c) follows, but EITHER more atheists OR transformed religionists can decrease the horrible strangle-holds of religion.

  • Wednesday

    I’m inclined to agree with Yahzi and Sabio — it seems to me that the spread of Moral Therapeutic Deism is one way that organized religion’s influence will diminish. I don’t think that’s mutually exclusive with our developing compelling atheist philosophies and moralities. I do think that when it comes to morality and social justice issues, MTDs are more likely to be open to rational, secular arguments than hardline “X is good because God Says So” theists. The diminished importance of gods leaves a lot more room for humanism.

    Sure, it’s giving people an easy out from some difficult questions about their beliefs. But I do think that there are some people who, due to some combination of nature and nurture, are utterly miserable as atheists and agnostics. MTD seems like a relatively harmless place for those people to wind up.

  • Michael H

    This has been my biggest gripe about the musical – it dilutes and trivializes religion as just ‘being nice’, while without the narratives, beliefs and doctrines that religions also possess, I’m certain their capacity to convert people into civil members of society would be greatly diminished.

    It’s the same thing they did in their ‘All About Mormons’ South Park – they put words in the mouths of the LDS characters that dismiss the tenets of their faith as unnecessary embellishment to the (supposedly) central message ‘being nice’. However, the true real message is the salvation that is brought through Jesus Christ, and that cannot be replaced by indeterminate moral platitudes.

  • Eric

    For all of their delight in offensiveness, Parker and Stone still advocate believing in “belief”. But not always, Scientology and NAMBLA get their outright disapproval. I think South Park still does us some goood overall.

  • Kaelik

    Micheal, are you religious?

    But yes, I tend to disagree with any attempt to define religion as just being nice, because there are many aspects besides being nice that are the actual things that make up a religion.

    If people are just being nice, but don’t believe in a supernatural being that does X, wants X or did X, then that’s not religion, that’s atheism.

    Likewise, it’s not actually the people who’s primary concern is with your belief in Jesus Christ, who may have only a tertiary concern with whether you starve to death who are rejecting the tenets of their religion, it’s actually the ones who feed you without preaching that “don’t have their priorities straight” according to their religion.

    Ultimately, the reason I object to Stone and Parkers message is the same reason I object to religions.

    It’s not true.

    And I act on the a priori premise that it’s best for everyone if everyone is acting based of off what is true.

  • keddaw

    It leaves us no room to develop and offer a compelling atheist philosophy and morality.

    But should we have one? I am a libertarian and I see no way that my philosophy will appeal to the majority of atheists let alone religionistas. My morality says that there is no morality and we should be focussing on things we can measure and using the word morality as a short cut for the totality of our preferences and values happens to obfuscate the real issues and leave people talking past one another to the detriment of all. Will that appeal? I think not since it plays into the claim that atheists have no morals (because they don’t exist in an objective sense!)

    While you may want to think (or not) that atheists are all nice, fluffy humanists, some of us are not. And I think we’d rather people didn’t tar us with some liberal brush because that’s the image many atheists want religionistas to have of all atheists. Basically, atheists should only agree on separation of church and state, removal of religion specific laws and the fact that it is exceedingly unlikely that any gods exist.

  • Dark Jaguar

    It’s odd. I see an episode dedicated entirely to the actor playing Chef not being able to take a joke about his religion, and several episodes going on about how ridiculous scientology is, and how they should have every right to be as disrespectful as possible. Then Richard Dawkins comes along saying belief in god is silly and doesn’t deserve respect, and they do a 2 parter about how atheists are just SO disrespectful of religion, how RUDE of them, and of course misrepresenting them. You can harp on any ONE religion you want apparently, but not ALL of them. They have been quoted as saying they think atheists are the “silliest of them all”, and their argument is basically incredulity that all of this “just is”.

    Oh, that pales in comparison to their “imagination land” triple episode spectacular. They literally argue that EVERYTHING is real because beliefs “affect the world” and who are we to say that “isn’t real”? Seriously, for a show that goes on about hippies so much, that was about the most hippy position they ever took. Very post-modern. So long as what you believe affects the world in some way, it’s “real”. I just get the impression that had anyone else made that special first, they’d be all over it saying “that… is… retarded!”. I can’t think of a single atheist, or even skeptic of anything, who argues that it isn’t real in that incredibly broad sense, the sense that it IS in fact a real IDEA that changes how some people act in the world. The question is, are leprechauns ACTUALLY out there in the world, ACTUALLY wandering around? They know that, but they’re just being intentionally obtuse.