Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Faith is not a virtue - and neither is emotional blackmail

The sign stood just on the west side of the Gervais Street bridge: stark black-on-white, immediate, unmistakable.

If I died today, would I go to H_____?”

Sponsored by BBN Radio of Charlotte, NC and LifeSigns of Gaston, SC, the billboard, which displayed this message for only a month or two at the end of 2010 before being replaced with more mundane advertisements for housing subdivisions, served as the most blatant recent reminder of what Christianity truly symbolizes, particularly in the South, where there is little to no chance of real pushback or public discussion. If nothing else, the carrot-and-stick message it conveyed felt more honest and straight than most of the cliched dribble one would find on the marquees of local churches. Believe our ridiculous nonsense and get a treat…but you can’t have it now, you’ll have to trust us. Don’t believe, and you will suffer forever…not that we can prove this place of suffering exists anymore than the treat does, but we know that’s where you’re headed. Join us or else; Big Brother is watching.

There’s so much wrapped up in this wrong-headed bit of emotional blackmail that it’s difficult to know where to start (once the side-splitting laughter subsides, that is). What strikes me most profoundly is the need for emotional blackmail at all. As Richard Yates described in his novel Revolutionary Road, people don’t forget what the truth sounds like; they only become better at lying. If there were any real truth to the revelatory claims of any religion, then what need would there be for a reward & punishment system at all?

No proponents of, for example, the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection would suggest that there are any long-term consequences to understanding or not understanding the facts that underpin it – aside from being laughed at for espousing creationism, anyway. Quantum Theory doesn’t care if you believe its own forms of truth; that reactor in Fukushima is pumping out radiation even if you close your eyes, plug your ears, and scream “LA LA LA” for the rest of your life. The Theory of Relativity doesn’t require your faith, and it cares not if you think it’s a source of moral decay; the Shapiro delay calculations built into your GPS will still get you to church on-time, whether or not you know it’s there.

Of course, there is a small category error in the argument I've just made. Scientific 'truths', such as the theories I've mentioned, are provisional. New evidence could change what we know. But we can still rely upon them everyday to make accurate predictions about the future, and each day that goes by without some wild overturning of our knowledge base only strengthens our certainty in the discoveries we've made. The revelatory claims of religion, on the other hand, are not only subjective but are often treated as though they are self-evident, as though there is no need for further substantiating evidence. The mere idea of questioning those 'factual' claims is, in fact, quite often heretical.

To summarize, if the existence of the Christian's invisible friend were as powerful and convincing as they seem to think, there would be no need to use such loaded language on a billboard; there would no point in fear-mongering so blatantly. It would stand on its own merits, and skeptics would become converts based on sensible assessment of the information at hand. That this doesn't occur, that instead we see such scare tactics, is a clarion call of sorts, a beacon that their message is bluster and their allegedly certain foundation is built upon sand – not a new discovery to non-believers by any stretch, but a detail worth pointing out to the faithful, a finger placed wryly on the side of the nose to say, “We know. You know. We know that you know, and now you know that we know you know.”

And LifeSigns continues to peddle this sort of emotionally-charged rhetoric on other billboards throughout the area, with the quote, “The night cometh”, ripped from John 9:4.

Of course, the faithful will respond that their faith is the most important aspect of their way of life, that no such deity can be so obvious, that it's necessary to take that cliched leap. It's even in the book itself: “But without faith it is impossible to please him” (Heb. 11:6). Such reasoning, if one can name it that, is difficult to penetrate, even when armed with the far superior and consistently practical reasoning that faith does not support the existence of fairies, leprechauns, the Chupacabra, or any other mythical thing any better than it does an all-seeing sky cop. Once one is certain faith is a virtue, any number of poor arguments seem bullet-proof.

The other great factor worth mentioning in these pin-headed messages is the fear factor for children; it seems, again, pointless to discuss with fellow skeptics, atheists, and non-believers who have said the same things ad nauseum, but a child's mind processes the idea of Hell differently from the adult mind. Few things are more motivating, for good or ill, to a child than fear and pain can be; adults can and do tolerate and cope with both differently. And few things are more reprehensible or irresponsible than the point-blank messages that LifeSigns and their customers have so carelessly scattered throughout the area.

But again, warped logic re-emerges to try to counter: 'Isn't frightening someone worth it if you save their immortal soul? Aren't you reminding them of the consequences of their decisions?' And sandcastle certainty rejoins it: 'Oh, but of course people have souls, it's what makes us human!' And thus the nature of evangelical religion – take your pick among them – is shown to have little to do with the truth and more to do with forcing conformity.

The Liar for Jesus might say, “Don't question the existence of the soul; never mind that the best and brightest minds throughout history have studied human anatomy, physiology, and neurology and found no such thing; you just have to believe more – what's wrong with you to even suggest such a thing? Don't you just know it's real? Where's your faith? And since we now know we have souls, aren't you worried what will happen to it when you die? Hmm? Well, it all just follows from there, doesn't it? We just want you to be saved...saved where? What's saved? Oh, you and your questions! Where's your faith?”

My faith doesn't exist, because it's nothing but a corrosive element. What distinguishes us from the animals (I hesitate to say 'separate', because we are not so separate from them, and we are certainly not above them as so many people assume) is not a soul, but the capacity for rational thought, and few things are more hideously destructive to that capacity than our pathetic, small-minded, and often selfish reasons for believing foolish things.  And the attempts made to press foolishness on others are equally pathetic and small.

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