Monday, December 8, 2014

"How To Suck At Your Religion": A Lengthy Rebuttal

The Oatmeal is a web comic that, a couple of years ago, did a piece called "How To Suck at Your Religion." It bugs me. It may seem late to be bringing it up now, but it still pops up in my Facebook feed and other places and -- according to his website -- is one of The Oatmeal's most popular comics, so I need to handle it.

Just so you know, I'm mostly indifferent about The Oatmeal in general. I'm annoyed more by its fans than it itself, since they gush about it a bit more than it deserves. I admit that it deserves something, since it's mostly okay and sometimes even funny or clever. However, even the harmless comics he does -- like ones about grammar (correct use of the word literally or how to use a semicolon) -- seem to only make those laugh who already know these things. I doubt that it actually educates those who don't.

This "How To Suck at Your Religion" comic is similar. It seems to be written to make atheists (or perhaps liberal believers) laugh and share it on their social media walls. It's (probably) not going to teach anyone to not suck at their religion.

There have been a handful of Christian rebuttals written about this comic. These rebuttals contain a mix of valid points (some of which are probably mirrored by me) and they also have stupid points that rise as a result of their religious beliefs (sorry, guys). So one reason I'm writing this is because I haven't seen too many rebuttals from atheists.

Also, mine is incredibly long, and things that take a long time to read is what internet users crave the most.

The title is a problem, for starters. It declares itself as a "how to," but the comic itself doesn't show you how to do anything: it just asks a bunch of questions. So it gives up on its own premise as soon as it begins.

And, as you'll see, this comic isn't so much about sucking at religion as it is about why the comic thinks religion sucks. Most of the comic's illustrated examples are about being good at your religion, in fact: how to be an accurate follower.

If he had titled the comic "Does Your Religion Suck?", many of my complaints would disappear--though there would still be plenty left.

I'm not sure what's wrong with judging people, first of all. I'm judging someone right now. The Oatmeal is judging most of the earth's population with this comic. When Jesus told his listeners not to judge people, he was judging them. Even uttering the phrase "don't judge" creates a feedback loop.

The ideal of what Jesus was getting at, of course, was to be more concerned with your own faults than with others'. (He follows up "don't judge" with the whole speck vs. log in eye metaphor.) Christians (which is who The Oatmeal is attacking in this example) believe in this ideal. So if they do "judge" (in this sense), it's not because their religion makes them (as the comic suggests). It's because they suck at their religion (which the comic doesn't suggest). To judge people is to suck at Christianity. To not judge them is to be successful at it. This bit of the comic now explodes.

As for the question of Hell (the example in this comic), for Christians who believe in Hell (and many don't), this isn't so much a personal judgment as it is a law of the universe. If you're not Christian, you go to Hell. This isn't something a human decides. God does--or so the belief goes. So Christians are just trying to be helpful, to "save" people. The concept of Hell is a stupid belief, to be sure, but it has nothing to do with the kind of judging implied in this comic.

Does religion hinder the advancement of science, technology, and medicine? Yes, often. Galileo and stem cell research are decent examples. But this means (again) that religion itself often sucks, not that a follower of religion is sucking at it.

I don't feel like quibbling much with the examples themselves, as others have. This is a simplified version of the Galileo story, but it gets the essence across, and the stem cell example combines real-life objection with a little goofy humor.

The reason why religious leaders (such as Catholic bishops) feel that they have any say in science is because they feel that morality and humanity is their realm of expertise. It isn't, of course, but they think it is, so when Catholics oppose the use of embryonic stem cells, it's because they're trying to put mad scientists in check. ("This is a human life!" Etc.) This is them being good at their (bad) religion, not sucking at it.

I agree with what The Oatmeal is probably trying to get across: that religion has been holding back humanity for centuries and continues to do so.

So, according to this comic, you suck at your religion if it was given to you by parents? But if you choose your religion yourself (Lisa Simpson style, perhaps at age twenty-five), then you don't suck at it? If you follow along in the family business, does it mean that you suck at business? Or do you always have to start your own business to be good at it?

These questions are giving the comic too much credit anyway, since really it's just trying to make fun of religious beliefs (like creationism and Noah's ark). Something tells me he wouldn't have a problem with my daughter being an atheist like her parents (unless his response would be "atheism isn't a religion"--if so, fair enough).

I'm still upset at the faulty premise of the comic. This bit is really saying "You probably didn't choose your religion. Your parents gave you theirs before you were old enough to reason for yourself, which is why you still believe it, because those kinds of things go deep." Yes, true. But you can't help but get things from your parents. (More on this after the next, connected, bit of the comic.)

I'm also not convinced that "demon tiger monkey" style jokes are helping here. (They're certainly not helping the comedy.) The closer you stick with what believers actually say, the better your argument, especially since some of the beliefs are truly ridiculous. Even the "invisible bearded flying man" is not a concept that most followers of the Abrahamic religions would subscribe to, which would turn them off of this comic, showing again that they're not (in spite of the comic's claim) the target audience. (Jesus defeated Jehovah's army? Jehovah is Yahweh, Jesus' dad. I know it's supposed to be "random," but that's just stupid.)

This is the worst part of the entire comic. This is the thing my brain went back to over and over until my brain finally made me write what I'm writing now. This bit of the comic is dumber than any religious belief ever was. (Not really, but close.)

What we have here is one of the largest false analogies I've ever seen. Well, more than one really, since it switches analogies midway through. The Oatmeal somehow thinks that a favorite color is anywhere near a religious belief. True, few parents would argue with a kid who says her favorite color is green, insisting that it's purple. Because it doesn't matter and because favorite color really is a personal choice.

But the belief in what happens when you die is not an irrelevant personal choice. It's not a matter of taste. It's a question that mankind has been asking since the beginning, and the answer you arrive at (one way or the other) can determine the way you live your life on earth. Whether you prefer green or purple is none of these things.

As for the analogy-switch, even though the analogy would still be false, in order for it to be an analogy at all the girl in the "don't do this" section would have to say "When we die, I believe we just die" while the dad would have to say "That's not true! We go to Heaven, and that's final!" Or the girl in the first panel would (nonsensically) have to ask, "Dad, what is my favorite color?" As it is, the comic says "You wouldn't insist a favorite color upon your child, so why do you tell her what you believe to be true about the afterlife when she asks you?" Huh?

And, by the way, a parent might argue with a kid over her favorite color if the color is significant. When my daughter told me she was supposed to have a certain item in pink as opposed to some other color, I asked her, "Did anyone tell you that you're supposed to choose pink?" Because pink is a significant color, insisted upon girls by our society, and it made me mad that someone might be limiting her already, at age three. A more conservative parent, if his girl said her favorite color was blue, might say "Are you sure you don't like pink better?" These colors mean things in this context. When's the last time you saw a little boy wearing pink pants and a Minnie Mouse shirt? But The Oatmeal isn't concerned with meaningful colors, even though that would have fit the analogy slightly better.

There's so much wrong with this section that it's difficult to even organize a response to it. Let's go back to the "so don't do this" panel. The dad here is giving his view of Heaven as an afterlife, which is a view his parents gave him. Once again, the dad is not sucking at his religion; he's simply passing it down. So this really seems to be another chance for The Oatmeal to complain about religious belief--in this case, the concept of Heaven. (We know he's talking about a Christian concept of Heaven because of the "2,000 years" tip-off.)

While I agree that Heaven is a "ridiculous belief" (though I wouldn't have always said so) and that no one would believe in it if it hadn't been handed down for thousands of years -- dating back to a time when we didn't know any better -- I think that the dad in this panel is doing exactly the right thing. When I believed in Heaven, I would have told my daughter about it, too. Now that I don't believe in Heaven, I will tell her that it doesn't exist if she ever asks--and even if she doesn't ask. Don't we teach our kids things to the best of our knowledge? When the folks before Galileo and Copernicus were asked about Earth's place in the universe, they said "we live in the center." They didn't say "I don't know, honey. What do you think?" They were not wrong for this, even if they were wrong.

So the dad in the final panel is an idiot. His daughter (who the comic has already admitted is not old enough to think rationally) asks him a direct question. It's fine, of course, to tell her what other people think (Heaven, reincarnation), but then just answer the damn question based on what you think you know. If you don't know, then you don't know, but don't turn it back on the kid. She is young and ignorant and asking you the question. What if her answer is "I believe we turn into My Little Pony dolls when we die"? Do you then say "That's great, sweetie; whatever you believe is true"?

And what's with this "No one really knows for sure" business? I think that if you've advanced beyond the wish-fulfillment that this very comic makes fun of (the "bizarre, backwards, ridiculous beliefs" of the previous panel), then we can at least know for sure what doesn't exist. So tell your daughter that we don't know everything about death yet, because we don't, but we've pretty well eliminated anything you might find in the Bible or the Bhagavad Gita about it.

So finally (again, again) this has nothing to do with sucking at your religion. To have a religion and be good at it is to pass it down. This bit of the comic is really "How To Be a Gutless Agnostic" (an agnostic who is also gutless, that is, since I'm not suggesting that agnostics in general are gutless), where "I don't know" is somehow the noblest answer even when you do know.

The comic's even larger message here is "If you're a religious person, do not teach it to your children." This is a stupid message. If you truly believe that there is a Heaven and that God lives there and that you know the way to get to it, why would you keep this from your own kids? Why would you keep it from anyone? You don't. Atheists think the concept of Heaven is nonsense, but you can't blame believers for wanting to help their families live forever.

The example here is mostly "demon tiger monkey" humor and easy jokes about Nickleback, so it's nearly useless.

I'm not sure that parents feeling weird about their children growing up and having sex is at the root of all this. That places the blame on parents, which is not religion, so -- once again -- The Oatmeal has gone against its own argument. Couldn't atheists also feel uncomfortable about their children growing up and having sex? (Hint: yes.) This could be a good place to demonstrate that, certainly, religion does have screwed-up, antiquated, incorrect views of sex that can mess people up for life. But the comic folds in on itself and loses the opportunity.

The awareness of the adult in the comic is also problematic. If the parent is truly following her religion, she will teach a screwed-up version of sexuality to her daughter because she truly believes that this version is true, not because a conspiracy has been formed of adults vs. children.

In the example, things implode mid-sentence, saying that you "cope with" the concept by making the kid feel guilty. This isn't coping with it: this is doing something about it. It should say (if anything), "I feel uncomfortable with you having sex, so I'm going to use religion to make you stop." The stopping doesn't happen, naturally, which is where the guilt feelings and all that comes in. Coping with our children growing up and having sex is something every parent has to do, in reality.

And, of course, this bit of the comic has nothing to do with sucking at religion. The Oatmeal is trying to say that religion gives you twisted attitudes about sex, which it does. But parents teaching their kids what their religion says about sex (none before marriage, homosexuality is wrong, masturbation is immoral, etc.) is attempting to follow the moral code of the religion, however screwed up it is. The code supposedly has a purpose, and the purpose is not to make parents feel more comfortable.

If I have a belief of any sort, it's nice when other people agree with me. For example, if I think that all people should be treated equally, but my racist uncle says otherwise, it's not wrong of me to wish that he comes around to my way of thinking, even maybe asking (or bugging) him about it. (This is a fictional example, by the way.) I don't do it to "validate" my belief. I do it because it's what I think is right.

The same is true of Mormonism (which is what The Oatmeal is picking on here). Mormons aren't trying to validate their beliefs. They truly believe that they have an answer that not everyone has, and they'd like to let the world in on it. It's potentially annoying, yes (only if you open the door), but the annoyance is based in compassion. The Mormon example doesn't work, and I can't think of too many examples that do.

But, okay, let's stick with what The Oatmeal actually asks and ignore the example: "Do you validate your beliefs by constantly trying to convince others to believe the same thing?" I suppose if the answer is yes, then fine: maybe you're (for the first time in this comic) sucking at your religion. You should just believe, not seek validation, though validation in any endeavor is nice to have, so I can't say that it's sucking too much.

The observation about Jews and Buddhists made me laugh because it's so ridiculous. Maybe The Oatmeal didn't read all that stuff in the Bible about killing anyone who didn't believe in Yahweh. There may not be door-to-door Jews, but I seem recall a door-to-door angel who would murder your entire family if you didn't smear lamb's blood on your house. Who needs to convert people when you can just kill them?

This is from ancient texts, of course, and it's true that contemporary Jewish people pretty much keep their religion to themselves, but this is arguably more selfish or elitist than "awesome." The religion's "validation" is only among themselves, making it so insular that the real world doesn't have to be dealt with. (Forgive me if this is a straw man, but you have to fight fire with fire sometimes.)

Maybe you remember the orthodox Jewish men on a plane recently who refused to sit next to women and spent most of the flight praying. This is worse than proselytizing: this is annoying others with your harmful religion without even giving others the chance to join in.

Buddhists, of course, are and always have had missionary work as part of their religion. Just because The Oatmeal doesn't see them doesn't mean they don't exist. And are we to assume that The Oatmeal feels that Jews and Buddhists don't suck at their religion (whatever that means)? I'm not sure.

We're learning that The Oatmeal's main wish is that he doesn't have to hear about religion at all.

The question itself here is fair enough. If you feel that you have to mock someone else's religion, maybe you suck at it. And the examples here work. Why? Because they stick with actual beliefs. There are no monkey tiger ninjas here, only what these religions actually believe. Sure, The Oatmeal throws in more contemporary terms like "zombies," but it works for the humor (such as it is) and gets across a concept about Jesus that (even though it's not original) might make someone think about his resurrection in a different light. All of these are good things. I award The Oatmeal one full point.

If you vote based solely on your religious beliefs, it may mean that you suck at politics, but I'm not sure why it would make you suck at your religion. But it probably doesn't mean you suck at politics either. If your candidate shares your religious beliefs, it might mean the candidate shares many of your other ideals. Do I pay extra attention to (the very rare) atheist politicians? Yes.

Whenever I see candidates running on the God platform, I typically don't vote for them. It's not all I look at, but it's certainly a factor. I'm a fan of the separation of church and state, so anyone who gets too Jesus-y on me or wants to put the Ten Commandments in front of the capitol is not someone I want running things.

This bit of the comic is The Oatmeal's attempt at putting a pox on both houses, which is one of those hip things to do to show that you're above it all. But the stuff here is just misleading. He seems to indicate that liberals aren't religious, first of all, which is wrong. Atheists make up only about two percent of Americans, so that means most liberals are just as godly as anyone else.

And the questions that the reporter asks the conservative and the liberal are clearly just fictions to force the point. When I do look beyond the "Vote for me because I believe in God" statements of the too-religious candidate (as the comic says I should), I usually can't find any reason to vote for him or her. After this happens a million times, it's a pretty good shortcut (for me) to just assume that the God candidates aren't worth bothering with.

The last panel doesn't even take full advantage of the two straw men. "Monster trucks" is not a political issue, just a jab at conservatives. And "the environment" and "hybrid cars" are the same issue. Can't think of a third? How about separation of church and state? The liberal could yell that.

This is a good example of sucking at religion. Even though there's nothing about it in the Koran, Islam eventually forbade depicting living beings at all (not just Muhammad but also regular ol' humans and even animals). Not a great idea to begin with. This eventually got somewhat dogmatized into Muhammad specifically, so that drawing a cartoon of him (for example) could get you killed. This is taking your religion and sucking at it by interpreting it oddly and badly.

Implicitly, The Oatmeal is giving credit to Christians and other religions that don't mind silly drawings of Jesus or whoever. Christians don't suck at this. Jesus is a public domain comic hero in America and most of Christendom.

I think this one works well enough because The Oatmeal has finally got the phrasing right. He doesn't ask "Does your religion make you so extreme that...?" It asks "Are you so dangerously extremist that...?" He's finally asking about the singular reader within the religion rather than the religion itself. That allows this one to pick on extremists within Islam rather than Islam itself, which is perhaps The Oatmeal being fearful (of Islamists or of critics who would call him Islamophobic).

However, he's now just picking on crazy people, on extremists--except that the religion itself is what causes the craziness (they wouldn't be crazy without it), so I'm not sure it works after all.

As a side note, I think the new rule jihadists should follow is that anyone who does the old "NO PICTURE AVAILABLE" joke is worthy of death. You know, just to step up their game. (Just kidding, of course: especially since I've done the joke myself.)

If you die for your religion, then you're a martyr, which means you win your religion, not suck at it. So we assume The Oatmeal is really saying "If you would die for your religion, then you're in a bad religion." So let's examine this. Perhaps your religion values sacrifice of self to help others, sometimes to the point of death. Many religions do, right? Even non-religious people would be willing to die for others, right? I'm not sure that this sucks.

What would suck is dying for your religion simply to be a martyr. Drawing a plane crashing into the World Trade Center would have done the trick. Instead, we get more "random" humor (rollerblading with Dark Lord FireApe) that does next to nothing.

We also get, I'm afraid, someone simply making fun of the mentally ill. There's a difference between a Muslim terrorist following an ancient faith that is practiced by nearly everyone he knows (and therefore accepted as normal reality) and a delusional person who has created his own private religion that is now causing him to spread peanut butter on his privates and commit suicide.

Even though religion is technically a delusion, psychiatrists don't classify it as a mental illness for good reason. The religious aren't hearing voices: they're being told they're hearing voices, by nearly everyone in the world. You feel abnormal when you don't hear them (and, of course, you don't).

So The Oatmeal's basic question ("Would you die for your religion?") isn't specific enough to really answer anything, and his illustration is off the point and a little cruel to those who actually have voices in their heads.

Although it's hard to tell what's "okay" in the first statement (the dying part? all of the above?), we eventually (maybe?) figure out that he's saying "If all of the above is true, then that's okay, I suppose, but would you kill or otherwise hurt other people for your religion? If so, you suck at it and should quit."

Since he's now talking about killing, this would be an even better place to draw the World Trade Center, but you can see that he's run out of drawing steam at this point and the rest of the "comic" is just text--which is too bad, since apparently this is the most important piece for him.

As for the killing question, some religions do call for killing, so doing so would be not sucking at your religion, but he means that the religion sucks and says "You should give it up." Just that easily.

His alternative to religion is wind surfing or ping pong, because he apparently thinks that religion is a hobby. I know that wind surfing and ping pong jokes are "just jokes," but even funny stuff needs to have a solid premise, and this one doesn't. Religions aren't hobbies, so it's stupid to even joke that they are. I didn't go to church for most of my life just because there wasn't a bowling alley in town. In fact, I blew off many of my hobbies and interests and friends (regrettably) in order to go to church.

I, too, wish that people could "find something better to do" than practice religion, but it takes an extreme amount of self-searching and struggle to overcome it, and I'm afraid it won't be easily dropped, even if the believer reads a very good web comic.

Here's where religious people get permission from The Oatmeal to keep being religious. The first thing he's okay with is religion helping people, but I've already explained how much of what he had issue with was (at least in the religious person's mind) helping people (helping them find Jesus, get into Heaven, etc.).

He says religion is okay if it makes you happier, but I'm not sure happiness is really the goal of most religions. Religion did often make me happy, but it just as often (and, eventually, more often) made me miserable. This misery, I thought, was for a purpose, so I suffered through it. But I didn't ever think "I should drop this religion because it doesn't make me happy." We were even taught that our "trials and tests" were what made us closer to God and that if you were happy all the time, you were probably doing something wrong.

The next part about "coping" (linked to the happiness he's writing about) is where The Oatmeal really gets it wrong. If you're religious just because it helps you cope, then I'd say that's you sucking at your religion, not succeeding at it. If you truly do feel that you're just a bag of meat who is going to die soon, and if you're just pretending that Heaven or God or whatever exists so that you don't have to face this reality or because it's "comforting," then that's being religious for a horrible reason. "Opium of the people" and all that.

The correct thing would be to face reality, right? Why doesn't The Oatmeal want this to happen? Why does he only allow religion for one of the worst reasons?

Fortunately, our actual reality is less bleak than The Oatmeal posits. We are more than bags of meat, whether you're religious or not. We may not have eternal souls, but we do have consciousness. The fact that we're aware of our death at all puts us in a position above the animals. Simple bags of meat couldn't even create a comic like this one, much less a William Blake poem.

And the "rock in outer space" we happen to live on is incredibly wonderful. For a rock, it sure has a lot of nice amenities. Ever seen the Grand Canyon or Niagra Falls or -- heck -- even your local city park? Even from outer space, the Earth is a gorgeous swirl of blue and green, not some dead thing no one would want to visit. We live on an amazing, impossible planet. God didn't put it here, but here it is, and aren't we lucky?

And I'm not sure who told The Oatmeal that we're "powerless, helpless, and insignificant" in relation to existence. This sounds like God-talk, not good atheist talk. God was the one who told Job (for example) that he was insignificant compared to himself. In fact, God demonstrated how powerless Job was by taking away everything he had... just to prove some weird point to Satan. And then he gave a big speech about it when Job questioned him: "Because you're puny and insignificant compared to me, so shut the hell up" is a good summation of God's final answer to the question "Why?"

Fortunately, we do have power and we can help some things (not all: "grant me the serenity," etc.) and we are very, very significant. So this whole section is a faulty premise. Religion is the thing (often) that tells you you're worthless (without Jesus or Allah or whoever stepping in anyway), while humanism and non-belief is the thing that helps us find meaning and exposes us to reality (both good and bad). Religion will not get me through this. There is nothing to "get through." Here I am.

The Oatmeal concludes -- after his permission for readers to carry on with their religions as long as it helps them cope with The Oatmeal's personal bleak outlook on life -- by saying "Just keep it to your fucking self." So even if your religion, in his view, is positive, it's still not something you should share.

So what we have in the end is not a comic about sucking at your religion or being good at your religion or even discerning between positive and negative religious practices. We just have a comic about this guy's personal feelings about the broad kind of religion that's spotlighted on television and how he wishes people wouldn't be so annoying about it. Even though he feels he's cool enough to deal with the harshness of life (powerless on a space rock, etc.), he realizes that weaker minds maybe need some of that sweet sweet religious comfort drug, which he's kind enough to let them keep as long as he's not bothered by their habit--because he's got more drawings of dinosaurs and comma splices to make.

So the comic, in short, says, "Religion is completely horrible (especially the ones I'm exposed to most often), but if you can manage to practice religion without letting anyone know about it or letting it affect anyone around you -- even your own family -- then go for it if it makes you happy, you poor thing you."


The comic's heart is in the right place, and if you quickly read it half-cockeyed, then there might even be a good message in there. The Oatmeal sees the problems of religion and attempts to attack them while at the same time attempting to demonstrate that it could possibly be practiced in a less problematic way. That's the attempt, I think. But almost every element of the comic is wrong, which is frustrating--especially when the comic is presenting itself as a logical antidote to religion's illogic.

My only hope is that this little writeup helps to balance out the universe just a smidge. Sorry again that it takes slightly longer to read than the comic itself. I know a picture speaks a thousand words, but what if all the words are garbage?

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