I've pretty much always been an atheist; when I was very small, I asked my mom what religion we were, and she just said "Christian" without really clarifying which franchise (as Emo Philips calls them), and I just sort of identified as that. Being "Christian" basically meant that we didn't go to church or worship or believe in pretty much anything, but we did celebrate Christmas and Easter, since, hey, presents and candy!
I think when I was in 4th or 5th grade, there was a local-news fallout about someone being kicked out of the Boy Scouts because he wouldn't say the pledge because it included the word "God" – it seemed to make sense to me, but I wasn't sure about the particulars. My dad said that that was "atheism", and that it was a type of religion that said there wasn't a god, and they couldn't even say "god". I thought that was kinda funny (Even then, I loved saying "God!" My favorite curse today is "Goddammit!"; then, I knew that the "damn" part wasn't good for little kids to say, so everything would be "God darn it!", which I suppose is kinda funny, since I figure to most people that'd be just as offensive as "goddamn"…), but didn't think anything of it.
In sixth grade, I read a biography of Bill Gaines, the publisher/co-founder of Mad Magazine, and there was quite a bit about his faith, or lack there-of, and it basically clicked with me – he believed basically the exact same thing that I did, and he even had a name for it, "atheism". So, at that point, I was Officially An Atheist. Not that I really had to change anything – I just had the name for it.
But, well, religion has always been sort of odd in our household. My mom is basically agnostic (she tends to believe in a spiritualness based on nature and suchlike; I think she doesn't believe in God per se, i.e. Some Guy Who Created Stuff, but sort of a nebulous… power or somethin'), my grandfather (her father) was basically like me and an organized religion-hating Atheist (I think if he ever knew about it, there might have been a chance he actually would have been a SubGenius minister like me). My father is a Lapsed Catholic, who still kinda-sorta believes, but not a whole lot (one memory is when I was about 7, and he was watching a Christmas or Easter service, and the preacher said something about Jesus – as they're wont to do – and I made some sort of joke about it, and Dad got really mad and told me to never joke at Jesus' expense). His parents and extended family are typically pretty religious. When I was younger, I couldn't figure out why there were so many pictures of this bearded guy all over; I assumed it was just some family member. I asked Mom who that was, like, maybe some dead Uncle or something, and she goes "That's Jesus", and I remember making some sort of comment to her that it was odd to have him on the wall in a painting like he's a family member or something. She concurred.
However, unlike my parents – and particularly my mother – I typically am interested in Organized Religion, especially viewed from those ensconced in it. One of the things I always tell people – and this is true – is that while most parents forbid their children to watch violent or more adult fare, my parents were fine with that (hey, when I was in 4th grade, my favorite show was Twin Peaks), but the one thing my mother forbid me to watch was the TBN Children's Shows. And, of course, when she's go to the store on Saturday Morning, I'd flip them on and watch until she came back. And, of course, we'd have the same conversation every Saturday Morning when she'd catch me:
Mom: I told you, I don't want you watching that shit!
Me: But it's funny! They're awful!
But more on those, later…
For every bunch of bad ones, there's a few really good and interesting things on religion from a religious viewpoint. And one of my favorites is Slacktivist. Fred Clark is a devoutly religious man whose done a lot of scholarship work (I'm pretty sure he's Southern Baptist) and works at a newspaper. He's also disturbed by the current US culture of people who identify as Christians who tend to ignore Christian Values in the pursuit of same.
Since he works at a newspaper, the man has excellent writing skills. And since he's really religious, he never looks down on the folks he's writing about, even when they're doing heinous stuff. He is able to see them with compassion and he makes an attempt to understand their mindset. (And he knows the Bible inside and out and wrestles with various aspects of it – it's clear that he's weighed all the options and Christianity makes the most sense to him, and so he's a Christian – it's not the type of mindset I find the most baffling where it's "Well, my family's believed this for generations, so therefore, I believe it!")
Right now, he's got a series going on about Creationism and Fundamentalism, which is just beautiful. Here are the four entries in the series that he's done:
The first is about a wonderful science teacher he had – who happened to be a Young Earth creationist, though an "apparent-age" one, which stated that while God had created the earth only, say 10,000 years ago, he made it LOOK like it was made billions of years ago. The second is another piece about education; primarily a wonderful astronomy professor who was also a creationist, but believed that God merely set events in motion – so that he set up the mechanisms for Evolution and all that, and just let it go, perhaps occasionally interfering, but mostly just letting it go (I have to admit: This seems to me to be the most elegant view of Creationism; I had an excellent teacher in fourth and fifth grade who believed in this view, and it makes the most sense to me, if you're going to go that route). The third is about creationism, fundamentalism and a crisis of faith when being faced with obvious evidence that your worldview is wrong. The fourth is about parable (or figurative truth) versus literal truth.
These four essays are just magnificent; they look at these issues with a compassionate eye – especially in the third one, there's a temptation to go "Wow, look at that wacky crap that dude thinks!" but he never succumbs to it, and uses it to explore the fundamentalist mindset and bringing a humanity to it. Mostly when folks think (or, well, at least, when I think) of fundamentalists, they tend to think of kooks going around, foaming at the mouth and saying that, say, the homosexuals are going to bring down society and we'll all be eating out of burning dumpsters and fighting wars for control of gasoline. And while I don't think anyone would really disagree that these types of folks are wrong (right? Right?!), it's rare that these people are treated as, well, people. You don't often get to look at their mindset that leads them to think that way – hell, they often don't seem to be thought of as having minds to begin with!
Fred Clark understands that while this type of mindset is dangerous (so dangerous), he also can show what kind of things lead to it. And though he's compassionate towards the type of people who believe that kind of crazy stuff, he's not afraid to call bullshit on it, either. For example, every Friday (and this is what got me reading his site, actually), he works on critiquing Left Behind; less so, the tortured syntax and fiction writing skills (though, oh, man, that's there in spades), but mostly the equally, if not more-so, tortured theology. Since he's got the knowledge to back it up, it's really interesting – like this recent post where he clarifies that the Left Behind books aren't based on the Book of Revelation, but rather, pre-millennial dispensationalism. There're also posts on what the end-times mania means for those of us who don't buy in to this crap.
But, on the other hand, sometimes the other side of the coin can be just as interesting and enlightening. Primarily, the aforementioned TBN children's programming. The normal programming isn't nearly as fun, because it's typically just televangelism, which is usually sort of boring (although there was the one that was funny because they were explaining that the line in the Bible "it's easier to put a camel through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to get into Heaven" as that it wasn't a literal needle, but rather, a gate to Jerusalem that was exactly camel-sized, so it was difficult fo get a camel to squeeze through, but still possible, and as such, it's difficult for a rich man to get into Heaven, but not impossible, so give them your money!). However, the Children's programming is a particularly strange flavor of propaganda.
Not all of what they show is bad, though – I am a fan of Davey and Goliath; this is basically what I think a children's Christian show should be, particular the later episodes. With Davey and Goliath, most of the episodes are basically about being a good person – there's a religious aspect to it (sort of a "Don't be a jerk, because it makes God sad" type thing – which is a gross oversimplification, but to me, the main thing is "Don't be a jerk", which is a good lesson, no matter how it's couched). And there's an episode where Davey and Goliath go into the forest and just explore the beauty of the world around them; it's as "Look at all this neat stuff that God made for you", but still, while I might argue against the second half of that, I think you've got to be pretty batty to say that this stuff isn't neat or beautiful. And, well, it's fine with me that if the impetus to get you to notice that stuff is God; you SHOULD realize that it's cool. So, basically, these are pretty good values, I'd say. Don't be a jerk, the world is a beautiful place, clean up after yourself, follow rules so you don't get hurt, don't be prejudiced, love people.
A few examples:
One of the sketches was a thinly disguised parable about a guy who doesn't care to accept Jesus, but enjoys his Easy Chair (which is actually a rocking chair, not an easy chair, but whatever) and basically lives for this chair, instead of Jesus. They talk about how everyone needs someone or something to believe in to keep them getting up in the morning and whatnot. For this guy, it's his chair.
The guy's wife asks "Do you depend on that chair?" and he says "Yeah, so, go 'way." And she asks "So, do you live for that chair", and the guy says "Yeah, I guess, leave me alone", and she says "BUT THIS IS IMPORTANT!" and it pretty much continues in that vein. Unfortunately, there's very little actual debate that doesn't result in Reducio Ad Absurdum; for example:
"Well, you need food to live, right?"
"And, Jesus is food for the soul! Therefore you need Jesus to live too!"
"…but I don't believe in the soul…"
"YOU NEED JESUS TO LIVE TO FEED YOUR SOUL" (&C.)
I found this particular sketch hilarious, though, because my reaction to them hassling the guy over his chair is the EXACT SAME to hassling the guy about Jesus. Basically, "WHY THE FUCK DO YOU PEOPLE CARE?" I mean, granted, that is one of the tenets of Evangelical Christianity, but later in the episode, they actually say "People might not care about what that we depend on and believe in!" So, apparently: You should believe in Christ and make sure that everyone you know knows both that you believe in Christ and that they should also believe in Christ. So: people don't care the same way about what you believe in, therefore believe in Jesus!
One time they did a story book about this poor little girl whom everyone would laugh at and beat up because she had no money. She'd only get to eat at school since they'd run out of food for her when it came time to divvy up the family food at home. Basically her whole life is one chain of misery after another.
At some point in her life, she decides to Accept Jesus. The next day, the teacher tells her that two ladies have shown up and are going to give her a Very Special Day in which she can do anything. They ask her where she wants to go first, and she says a store, and she gets a bunch of nice clothes, and then she goes to a restaurant and gets a bunch of nice food, and then she goes to the Toy Store and they give her any toy she wants, and she chooses a doll. Then it's time for her to go back to school (for some reason, part of the deal is that the Mystery Ladies have to bring her back to school…), and so she does. When they get back, all the kids who were mean to her before are now obsessing over her new stuff.
Her reaction is "Joy! I'm accepted! People like my stuff! Thanks, Jesus!" and the story ends.
I could be wrong in my reading of this story, but as far as I can tell, the moral is "Poor People Suck, and Jesus can help you become Not Poor so you can fit in with the richer people who are, by definition, better than you. Because you're POOR, POORY!" I suppose the secondary moral is something along the lines of "Oh yeah! Who needs real actual human friends when you've got JESUS! And MYSTERY LADIES!"
Then again, I'm probably just missing something, not really being a Christian and all. Perhaps Paul said "(1)And Lo, you shall go into the valley of darkness and verily, (2)there shall be some middle aged ladies who will take you off school grounds (3)despite not being a parent or guardian and yea, (4)they shall buy you things, (5)but only if you had accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord And Personal Savior thine night before. (6)Thy will be done. (7)Amen." After all, I don't have a copy of the Bible on me or anything, so…
In this episode, it was a series of true-or-false type questions called "Wise or Foolish", and you had to say whether each given situation was "wise" or "foolish". One of them was "Was Judas Wise or Foolish for Betraying Jesus?"
The "correct" answer was "F", which strikes me as weird, since, uh, if he didn't, Jesus wouldn't have died for our sins, therefore leaving humanity in a bit of a pickle (or, rather, leaving us to continue making sacrifices to God as that was what Jesus' crucifixion was meant to replace). Sherriff Don, the host, said it was Foolish because Judas felt so bad afterward he hanged himself – but had he not "betrayed" Jesus (and there are scholars who think that the kiss between Jesus and Judas symbolizes that it was actually a planned thing from the get-go), Christianity would have been quite different. (Not to mention that as my friend points out, there are incompatible Biblical accounts of what happened to Judas, one where he hanged himself and one where he fell and eviscerated himself on a pointed rock.)
Of all the scams, I think Faith Healing is my most despised (along with Psychic Surgery, different sides of the same coin). Not only does it take money from people who are sick, it provides false hope which can result in death. There's lots of examples of people with maladies that are easily curable with traditional medicine, but die because they don't get treated by an actual doctor, opting instead to get "healed" by these scamming assholes. I'm sorry, but this just gets me so angry – the other stuff is pretty awful too – the swine who prey upon grieving people who miss their dearly departed friends and family by pretending they can talk to the dead can go straight to hell too, but at least with that, you just get a lighter wallet. You're not going to die because you gave John Edward money – you're just going to buy him another yacht for poorly doing a parlor trick. But these people – these worthless fuckers – kill people.
Anyway, though – the episode: There's a mysterious sickness going around, and a family on the outskirts of town are all sick and dying; the doctor went in and couldn't save them and instead caught the illness as well. So, they call in Gospel Bill (I guess so he can arrest the virus?) to take care of the problem, and he goes in, despite everyone's best advice, takes his Bible and prays over them and in no time, they're eating and not dying anymore. And then there's a music video segment (each episode has one) about a little girl whose mother has cancer, and so she prays, and the mother's cured of cancer. And the bit at the end with Gospel Bill talking is all about faith curing disease – and not in the "Being In Good Spirits Can Help Your Body Fight Disease" sense, which is a true thing; if you're sick, it's best to not Give Up and to think you're going to pull through… in addition to medical attention, of course. This entire episode, however, was about how if medicine isn't working, pray the disease away! (And the way it was written and made really implied that the Doctor Stage was a mere formality that could be dispensed with.)
And, well, I'm sorry, but this is just heinous. I know that there's a lot of Faith Healing on TBN, but this is for children. I suppose you've got to get them young, but still – this is easily the worst thing on here. Whether or not Judas was foolish doesn't kill people (other than Judas). Believing in Easy Chairs doesn't kill people. Waiting for deliverance from classist schoolmates doesn't kill people. This does. Willie George looks and acts like an affable enough guy, but that's just too much. Most of these shows aren't actually doing palpable harm to people.
I must say however – even though I'm an atheist, and I just can't wrap my head around faith, I don't think poorly of people just because they've got That Old-Time Religion. My distaste for people like Gospel Bill isn't based in what he believes – it's the way he acts because of these beliefs (and what he's apparently willing to do for his desire for money). For some people, religion is an Instant Turn-Off, and that's not really my scene. I basically tend to think of it as a "Whatever floats your boat, as long as it doesn't interfere with my own boat" situation. Believe what you want and Rock On, as long as you're not going to do anything to hurt me or try to convert me or in any other way interfere with my own On Rocking. And sometimes I enjoy asking about it – I'm a culture-junkie, it's an aspect of culture, therefore I'm interested in it. So, I don't write people off because they happen to be Jesus Freaks. (There are many other real reasons to write people off, heh.)
Admittedly, I do fall into the pit of open mockery (I tried to reign that in, but look at how long the TBN section is versus the Slacktivist section – and, jeez, did you read the bit on the Mystery Ladies? Talk about open mocking…) much too often, and I feel bad for it, particularly when writing about people who I think actually might be mentally ill. But I think that's just a particularly icky part of human nature – that sense of "These people are the Other; they're not as cool as me, otherwise they wouldn't be the Other, so let's point and laugh," and we're all guilty of that. Sometimes it's because people do stuff that's worthy of Pointing And Laughing (hey, I know I've done my fair share), and other times it's just because we don't understand. Folks like Fred Clark help to the latter, and, well, sometimes TBN can provide the former. The danger just comes when we try to apply as a blanket judgement call, and that just doesn't work. There's good and bad aspects of religion, as with most everything; it can cause people to marvel at the beauty around us. I personally tend to think that the chain of coincidences that lead to this particular world is more amazing and beautiful than the idea that it was particularly created this way; other people disagree and think that that takes the magic out of it rather than adding more magic. But that's cool too! They don't necessarily have to agree with me, and I don't have to agree with them; we can just co-exist and get along in our own ways.
As far as I can tell, the ideal situation is that people Don't Be Jerks and Realize That Stuff Is Really, Really Cool. And I think there's times when people agree more than they think they do, and there's other times when people need to be called on things that are wrong (and that goes for me, too). But as long as we're all trying our best, that's all we can ask for.