Monday, August 6, 2012

How to "Suck" at Criticizing Religion

Certain ideas have remarkable staying power. For example, back in the early aughts there was a very popular book called the Da Vinci Code. Some dismissed it as trashy fiction, while others regarded it as some heretofore unheard of archaeological discovery. Little did they know that this story about Jesus not really being who we think he is is anything but original. In fact, this image of a rather mundane and unexceptional Christ gets recycled about once every twenty years or so. In the same way, the recent viral sensation by the "Oatmeal" has a similar appeal. The title of the cartoon is called "How to Suck at Religion", and like the Da Vinci Code, what it seeks to do is to repeat common criticisms against religion (particularly the Catholic Church) and then treat them as if they were incredibly novel. I suppose for a generation less familiar with religion it is original and hilarious. But whatever the case, the Oatmeal, and those who make similar arguments, are not saying something new, but rather repeating like unthinking zombies the same tired canards over and over again! Nevertheless, I have come, not only to criticize, but to assist these tragic zombies in making their case. I come to liberate these individuals from their parrot-like existence. Just as the Oatmeal has sought to educate me and others about how best to practice "intelligent" religion, I wish to do the same for them. In other words, the arguments in this little anti-religious tract are so weak, that I am actually going to give them real arguments so that he might genuinely critique religion as opposed to reviving the same anachronistic points. Why? Frankly, I just can't take the ignorance anymore. If I'm going to have an intelligent debate about these essential matters, I just want to make it somewhat challenging. As it stands, the arguments so typically made by publications like the Oatmeal are engaging for those who are only willing to see wickedness in the Church. Fortunately, from a Catholic perspective, we believe in a scholastic approach; one that stresses the importance of understanding your opponent's point of view so that you can better understand your own. Strangely, those who call themselves rationalists and intellectuals don't seem as willing to challenge themselves in the same fashion, preferring instead to pit themselves against the weakest religious arguments, and then smack them down as if they have accomplished something. What follows is my attempt to make this a little more of an entertaining bout.


1. Don't do this: Create a "straw man" (or in this case, a stick man) argument that makes your criticism seem almost gratuitous. If your opponent is as stupid as you seem to think, then why are you debating with him in the first place? It is a little bit like beating up your grandmother and then patting yourself on the back for it.

Instead, maybe try this: If your opponent's position is worthy of debate, then first present their argument as they themselves might present it, not as the most the ignorant clueless person on earth might envision it. This is what we call the "benefit of the doubt", something I know that you would not deprive of those with whom you are debating. To do otherwise makes it look like as if you are not so much trying to make a good intellectual argument as trying to bully someone into agreeing with you. And being someone who is trying to give you the benefit of the doubt, I am going to assume that's not what you're doing.  

2. Don't do this: Bring up the Galileo case as evidence that the Church is against science. Apart from the fact that the dispute was more about politics than science, I have other reasons for trying to offer some positive alternatives to this weak invective. First, if you keep bringing up Galileo, it makes it look like that is your only example of the Church being anti-science. And if this is the only arrow you have in your quiver, then such examples begin to look less like a pattern and more like an unfortunate deviation. Secondly, make sure you have your historical facts straight (i.e. Galileo was never thrown in a dungeon or tortured, nor did the Church deem the heliocentric theory a heresy), otherwise it looks like you are desperate to make your opponent look bad, which doesn't bolster your argument.

Instead, maybe try this: Ask the other individual why the Church was involving herself so heavily in the conclusions of science, as opposed to focusing on theology. Then ask them why the pope chose to act more like a political animal than the vicar of Christ when pursuing Galileo. These are real questions to be asked, questions that provoke real discussion.

3. Don't do this: Present a priest in clerics in front of a congregation condemning whole groups of people to the fiery furnace. I have been going to church as long as I can remember, and I am still waiting for that magical day when I hear a priest condemning someone to the lake of fire. I am not saying there are not those who still do this, but they are no doubt the exception. This anti-religious argument is about as current and relevant as making a joke about cruel nuns with rulers.

Instead, maybe try this: Keep your arguments current! If a joke falls in the forest and no on gets it, is it still a joke? Well, when it comes to a real debate, the answer is no. There may have been a time when this was an appropriate critique, but we do not live in those times anymore, so stop making it.

4. Don't do this: Claim that Hitler was a Catholic and therefore motivated somehow by this to exterminate the Jews. Minimal research will uncover that Hitler disdained Christianity, mainly because its central teaching demands care for the weak and most vulnerable, a virtue (or vice from his perspective) that he thought deplorable. Hitler was baptized, yes, but repudiated his faith early on in favor of a mythology about the Aryan race. The only hint of religion in the Nazi ideology was the Swastika, which was lifted from the Hindu religion.

Instead, maybe try this: I agree that Christianity espouses things that are undoubtedly good and worthwhile. But if it's as good as you claim, then why do so many Christians fall short of those standards? Or, given what was happening to the Jews during WWII, why didn't more Christians step up to the plate and help them? I mean, even Gandhi was quoted as saying in essence that he liked Christ, it was "Christians" that he had a problem with...

5. Don't do this: Suggest that the Church is against progress because she practices medical ethics. Remember the Church was the institution that inspired the idea of the hospital, which is why so many are named after saints. Thus, I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss her ethical concerns. I know it is difficult to be specific in a cartoon (which is perhaps one reason not to try to express complex ideas in a cartoon), but on the issue of stem cells distinctions are more than a little instructive. The only type of stem cells the Church objects to are those that are culled from human embryos; embryos which are called "human" for a reason. But even if you object to this criterion, it is worth noting that the kind of research that the Church is behind (i.e. any kind that does not involve creating a life in order to destroy it) has proved to be the most successful and, that's right, the kind that has been least successful is the kind that involves the destruction of human embryos.

Instead, maybe try this: Perhaps a better path to take for the one who rejects the golden rule of medical ethics (i.e. the end doesn't justify the means), is to say that out of compassion we must do all we can to mitigate human suffering. There are all of these embryos out there that won't be used anyway, so why not commit them to research. Of course, this is merely an argument from emotion and not based on consistent medical logic, but its better than the one he's got going. Incidentally, the Church doesn't call things like embryonic research heresy. Immoral yes, but heresy refers more to her dogmatic declarations (viz. Jesus is the Incarnate God)

6. Don't do this: Suggest that a parent should not instill their own values in their children. It is one thing to suggest that a few parents mindlessly parrot nonsense to their children... which they later repeat (kind of like this Oatmeal cartoon), and quite another to suggest that the whole Western world is founded upon this kind of stupidity. Now that's some remarkable cynicism. Quite the contrary, a parent presumably passes on to their child the best of what they have, which is why some parents try to give their kids faith even when they themselves have none. But even assuming it were accurate to say that Christians were mindlessly passing on their faith to their children, that still doesn't explain why they do it in the first place. Do you have such a low opinion of people that you think that they have no reason for instilling these values in their children other than perpetuating some mindless process?

Instead, maybe try this: Although each parent wishes to instill in his or her child the best of what they have, at a certain point a child must own their beliefs. Consequently, no individual should choose to devote their lives to a set of values without thinking about them critically first. In other words, you should know, at least to some extent, the intellectual reasons for believing the things that you believe. Otherwise you may indeed be a mindless zombie who accepts a mindless anti-tradition like the one so eloquently articulated in this comic.

7. Don't do this: Cite dietary restrictions in the Old Testament as proof that Christians are hypocrites. Towards the end of this particular "comic" tract the author suggests that it is silly to take a cartoon seriously. I am not really sure why a cartoon makes such insults more trivial; it certainly makes what the author is lampooning seem more trivial, but not the cartoon itself. For example, if I wrote a cartoon mocking someone's mother and then said afterwards "Lol" or "JK," I don't think that that would mitigate my insulting behavior (and rightly so). However, I will agree in this one sense: I find the religion that he has so cleverly invented for Christians as absurd as he does. Fortunately, whatever religion he is referring to is not one that I subscribe to either. Christians believe that the law of the Old Testament is fulfilled in Christ; that is to say that no food is unclean (which thankfully includes those delectable little pigs). If this were not the case, then why not cart out circumcision as even greater evidence that all Christians are a bunch of hypocrites? I would have to say that even his beloved "Dark Lord Fire Ape" would have to agree with me on this one.

Instead, maybe try this: Focus on the New Testament, because if you are really going to undercut Christians, it is not going to be by pointing to some inscrutable act in the Old Testament (which the Church has always said is superseded, or fulfilled, in the New Testament). If it were me, I would go after  the fact that Scripture doesn't overtly denounce slavery. Or maybe I would bring up the fact that women seem to be "kept in their place" in some of Paul's writings- and as important as women were in the early Church, none were given a place in the hierarchy. These criticism are nothing new either, but at least they are not so easily swatted away.

8. Don't do this: Reduce the Church's teaching regarding sexual ethics to mere Puritanism. Once again, stay up to date, man. Do you see anyone around here wearing those big black buckled Puritan hats anymore? So stop pretending that we just hopped off the Mayflower, or that woman are walking around with medieval chastity belts. Talk to any young man or woman about their Christian Faith and the last thing most of them will say is that they won't talk about sex, or that sex is "dirty". There may have been a time where sex was shrouded in fear in certain cultures, but look around you- who is saying the stuff that you caricature here (although I must admit, I did find that bit about Nickelback amusing...)? And by the way, are you implying that there are no occasions in which one should abstain from sex? Who is the naive and foolish one here, suggesting that anything but sexual license is inevitably good? I don't think you really want to be implying something so facile about an act that has such an incredible power to create or destroy.

Instead, maybe try this: It is understandable that some want to set boundaries regarding sex. I mean if we were all to go around doing whatever we felt like, what kind of society would that be? Even so, when setting such restrictions we should be careful not to imply that sex is something loathsome, or something that we should associate with being impure. In the past, there have been people from various religious sects that do go to this extreme, and do purposely encourage this negative association. Would that they would stop this! We know that boundaries are what separate us from the animals, but nevertheless, we should still engage in a real and honest debate about what those boundaries should be. In other words, what justification does Christianity (and other groups) have for so rigidly drawing the boundaries of sex at heterosexual marriage?

9. Don't do this: Bring up some scandal in the history of the Church when you know nothing about it. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard someone throw out in a discussion- unrelated to anything you were previously talking about- some horrible scandal associated with the Church. You could be talking about the pope meeting Netanyahu in Jerusalem, and someone will say out of no where; "What about the Spanish Inquisition?" If someone wants to criticize the Church, great, just make sure your criticism actually relates to something in the conversation, otherwise it can look as if you are just trying to pull anything out of the air to make the Church look bad. Secondly, know something about the thing that you are criticizing. Reciting the words; "What about the Inquisition?", or "What's up with the Crusades?", is not equivalent to an argument. Oftentimes, all I really need to say in response to someone like this is; "What about it?" and that pretty much ends the conversation. The truth is these individuals generally know very little beyond what has been repeated to them- which consists mainly of: the Church did this, and it was bad because bad things happened. There is plenty to criticize, but to have only the most superficial understanding of what you are so profoundly against is unacceptable by any standard.

Instead, maybe try this: How can a Church which claims to want to treat every human being with the utmost respect and dignity hand them over to be tortured. How can a Church so dedicated to the family allow some of her leaders to abuse children? How can Christians who claim to love their neighbor as themselves look the other way when Jews are being slaughtered in concentration camps? All of these are real questions, which require real answers. Nevertheless, I should say that even while you criticize the Church by holding her to these high and worthy standards, you must also recognize that the mete by which you measure her is the standard that she herself established in the first place. And furthermore, when you do critique her, don't pretend that the world would somehow be immaculate and sinless without the Church. You also might want to avoid behaving like you yourself are the arbiter of all that is good and right and just in the world. Why do I say this? Because sometimes critics and historians have the hubris to pretend that they would have been above the fray had they lived in those former times.

10. Don't do this: Lump all religious ideologies into the same group. I know this makes your criticism of religion easier, but it doesn't do justice (if you are in fact concerned about that) to the wide-ranging set of beliefs. There is no idea that is more powerful than God. Therefore, it is not surprising that some will use this powerful idea for nefarious purposes. One might view God as an energy, another as a Force, another as the State, another as themselves, and another as chaos and death. The question is not whether you believe in something all-powerful; the question is what you believe to be all-powerful. The next question you should ask is whether that belief actually contributes to a society governed by virtue, or one that is rife with vice.

Instead, maybe try this: Not all religions are created equal. Plain reason tells you that there are some ideologies that are wicked (whether religious or secular), and some that seem to operate on more humane principles. What you need to look at in order to gauge this are three things;  a) what the core values of that ideology are;  b) what its role in history is;  c) how its adherents behave. Implying that every religion/ideology is ignorant simply  because it is religious, is not only terrible logic, but it fails in a very basic sense to understand what motivates and inspires human beings to act. Whatever a man values in this life is the barometer for how he behaves.

11. Don't do this: Hold the position that each man is "a bag of meat sitting on a rock in outer space...completely, powerless, and the wake of this beautiful cosmic sh-- storm we call existence..." and then try to explain to me how to practice my religion humanely. The religion of the "nice" sounds well and good, but what is it motivated by if we are all simply a big "bag of meat"? If we are completely valueless and insignificant, how can we possibly perceive ourselves, much less others, worthy of such noble treatment? I don't impute dignity to meat, I eat it. So if that's what you're going for in arguing your ideals, I would not recommend that you imply that the natural outgrowth of such a worldview is a philosophy of happiness and brotherly love.

Instead, maybe try this: "Since I believe that man is a big bag of meat, then I will be consistent with my views and say that life is meaningless and that it doesn't matter what you do. There is no truth, nor are there any ethics to contend with." If these are in fact your views, then go forth, my budding atheist, and define yourself as it pleases you. Then sail off into that sunset of oblivion where everyone, as you recommended in your cartoon, keeps their religion to themselves... except you.        

If you wish to see the cartoon, you can view it by going to the link below. But be forewarned, it may be highly offensive to anyone who reveres God, or holds religion in high regard:


  1. YES! I too, am tired of the mindless drivel called criticism of the Church, of non-existent christs and the continuous shadow-boxing of imaginary opponents. I guess most of my energy in past so called confrontations involved countering false premises of questions. Perhaps you could comment on that for us who have to deal with these people? Much appreciate your post here!

  2. I think the best way to counter a false premise is simply to question it. If the premise is false then they will probably have little to sat in response to a few probing questions. If they are open-minded it will then begin to occur to them that they have uncritically taken a position on something that they should have sussed out a bit more.

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