Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Don't Worry, Be Happy (or Sleepy, or Dopey, or Doc ...)

While I was surfing the Web last weekend I stumbled on a blog post about the "atheist bus" ad campaign that I've written about before. This post was by a Christian writer who found the campaign's slogan strangely attractive:

There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy with your life.

His answer was predictable, at least to me.
Then it slowly dawned on me. This ad is a cry for freedom; a cry against the tyranny and oppression caused by a diabolical god. For once, I find myself fighting alongside the atheists. A god who paralyzes with fear, overburdens with guilt, and replaces the joy of life with sorrow and regret is no God at all. This god is an idol that demands tribute and can never be feed enough. The atheists are avidly fighting against a god who takes life rather than gives it.
In this instance, perhaps the cry of Ariane, Dawkins, and others is not far from the cry of Jesus, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them… you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.” (Lk 11:46, 52).
Sometimes I wonder… Would Jesus ride the atheist bus?
I joked in my first post on the Atheist Bus Campaign that an 'atheist bus' must be a bus that doesn't believe in gods, but this guy wrote as though he thinks that were true, or that riding a bus means agreeing with all the advertising it carries. That's presumably why a Christian bus driver refused to drive a bus with the atheist ad on its side; or maybe that driver knew that many riders would think so, and blame him -- not the bus company -- for the ad. ("Presumably," another blogger shrewdly speculated, "he was previously perfectly happy to drive about in buses advertising capitalist multinationals, bearing exploitative images of women and encouraging us to go out and spend money on goodness knows what rubbish – but there you are, that’s Scummerland for you.") And presumably, I as an atheist should refuse to ride a 'Christian bus' displaying a Christian ad. People are scary.

But I think that our blogger knows better, and is just constructing a sermon theme, a superficially startling opener that in the end turns safely home to the faith you know and love. What I don't get is how he can claim Jesus as an opponent of what he calls "the tyranny and oppression caused by a diabolical god." The Jesus of the gospels is a preacher of hellfire and damnation. Shortly after the passage the blogger quotes, Jesus tells "the crowd," "I tell you my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!" (Luke 12:4-5, NRSV). Be afraid, be very afraid! This heartwarming passage, which is followed immediately by more of the same, can be read as referring either to Yahweh or the devil, or to Jesus himself, whom the gospels depict as having "authority to cast into hell." It doesn't much matter, though, for the ultimate source of that authority must be the same: Yahweh, the god of Israel. Jesus' promises of reward usually alternate with threats of eternal punishment.

Jesus' message in the New Testament would be meaningless if there weren't a Hell, created by Yahweh for the devil and his angels, awaiting those who fall short of whatever standard Jesus demanded of people. Being "saved" is only a concern if you're in danger, and Jesus is clear and explicit about what the danger is. The cosmology of the New Testament is incoherent -- it's impossible to know exactly what one must to do avoid Hell and be admitted to the Kingdom, since different requirements are declared at different points. The function of this incoherence -- not necessarily its intent -- is to foster that paralyzing fear and anxiety that our blogger objects to. First you have to create the danger, then you can sell the remedy for the danger.

On one of my first trips to Korea, my friends took me to a famous and very old Buddhist shrine at Seokguram Grotto. I wrote in my journal:
HK told me, as we continued downward, about the meaning of the white paper lanterns that were hanging above our heads; they were in memory of the dead. They're part of the rituals intended to help the dead make their way to paradise more quickly. HK said she'd been surprised to find no such elements in Christianity when she was in the US. I explained to her about masses for the dead in Roman Catholicism, and prayer to saints for intercession, which are intended to shorten people's stay in Purgatory. I also told her the rabbinic story of Rabbi Aqiba saving a spirit from Hell, and mentioned Wittgenstein's remark from the Tractatus that any afterlife would be as mysterious as this life.

It's odd to me that people invent hell, and then invent ways to get other people out of it. Which comes first, the punitive impulse, the construction of a system of posthumous spiritual "justice", or the construction of loopholes in the system in the name of mercy? It's commonplace, a cliche really, for unbelievers whether atheist or just members of competing cults, to blame these systems on the greed of priests and other religious professionals. There's probably some truth in that notion, but it also seems to me that laymen like the process, the system, the game, the complications.

There's certainly a human impulse toward elaboration, and one toward creating obstacles so as to have something to get around. The iconoclasts who smash one such game will see it replaced with another by their followers, if they don't invent the replacement themselves. Jesus was no exception, for what it's worth. He was in some kind of competition with the Jerusalem temple cult. Rather than deny outright the need for expensive atonement, he (or his disciples) established the cut-rate alternative of baptism -- but inflation inevitably set in. If Jesus himself instituted baptism, he was in on the process himself, and by the time Paul became a Christian, Jesus' followers certainly had such a system in place. If we knew that people really needed this sort of help after their death, it would be perfectly reasonable and rational for their friends and relatives to give it. But we don't know any such thing, and that is the problem.
So, like a true fundamentalist, our blogger puts the blame on Jewish "lawyers" in the gospels, and on modern churches that interpret the gospels differently than he does, trying to divert attention from the fact that it was Jesus, as far as anyone knows, who preached the "diabolical god" he objects to. Since he can't believe in the Jesus of the gospels (and who can, really?), he constructs a Jesus he can believe in. Would Jesus join the Atheist Bus Campaign's protest against such beliefs? I see no reason to think so.

In his 1958 Critique of Religion and Philosophy (Harper & Brothers), Walter Kaufmann wrote a dialogue between Satan and a Christian, which concluded (chapter 59):
Christian: You always harp on hell.

There is no place like home. And you might as well get used to the idea: haven't you been told that I enjoy the company of those who cannot answer me any better than you?

But I don't understand at all. Only hysterics think of going to hell themselves.

: I know: good Christians consider hell a place for others. But don't you realize that if you are right about everything, you, and those like you, are undoubtedly headed for hell? Don't you see how immeasurably you stand to gain if Christianity is untenable? It is I that bring you glad tidings. Believe me and you are saved. That God exists, that is a ritual phrase, charged with emotion and a thousand connotations: some sheer superstition, some myths, some true, some false, and most of them vague. But here is the truth that shall make you free: I do not exist.

If Satan does not exist, I must have dreamed. So I can go on believing what I have always believed. But what exactly do I believe? That is the question.
(image link)