Category Archives: Religion

Mad Max : Fury Road

I felt it was time to write about George Miller’s most recent Mad Max film now that Oscar season is right around the corner, and there is talk of a special release of the film that will be entirely in black and white. I must admit this film caught me by surprise. I didn’t quite know what to expect based on the trailers. My first viewing of this film was a visceral punch to the gut and brain. The film breaks out of the action movie mold of the last 25 to 30 years and is basically just one long, extended car chase and fight scene. Mad Max completely captured my attention with the sound, the music, and the practical effects (lots of real explosions and stunts and minimal CGI). The thing that most stood out to me after my first viewing of this film, however, was none of that, it was the incredible performance by Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa. I had not paid much attention to this movie before it came out, and Theron so completely transformed for this role that I did not recognize her until after the film ended and the credits started rolling. As I watched the film a second, third and fourth time in the theater I became even more impressed by Tom Hardy’s solid job as Mad Max, and I picked up on lots of little things George Miller and the actors put into this movie.  I continued to be amazed by Theron’s performance as well. A trailer may give the impression that this film is just a big, dumb action movie but it is actually quite deep, exploring themes that are highly relevant to the post-modern era.

The major themes that resonated to me were warnings about nuclear war, climate change, and religious and political extremism. The other theme carried throughout the movie is the power of women. There are no damsels in distress in this film. The women in Mad Max: Fury Road are just as ferocious and capable, and sometimes more ferocious and capable than the men.  The redemptive power of women to undo the damage wrought by men through nuclear war, climate change and extremism is one of the main lessons of this film. In that way this work agrees with another one of my heroes, George Carlin, who rightly places most of the blame (but not all) for the insanity of this world on men. That insanity is reflected in this movie, which eschews pacifism and calls for a struggle against tyranny and extremism as the only way to make the world a better place.

There Is No Why

There are questions religion, and theology in particular can’t answer. At least in my opinion, they can’t answer them. They attempt to answer these questions, and I believe that they fail to. The classic question “why do bad things happen to good people” comes to mind. One could also ask “why do good things happen to bad people.” It seems just as relevant in light of how the world actually works. The ancient Greek thinker Epicurus worded the dilemma of evil this way:

“The gods can either take away evil from the world and will not, or, being willing to do so cannot; or they neither can nor will, or lastly, they are able and willing.

If they have the will to remove evil and cannot, then they are not omnipotent. If they can but will not, then they are not benevolent. If they are neither able nor willing, they are neither omnipotent nor benevolent.

Lastly, if they are both able and willing to annihilate evil, why does it exist?”

Of course, as humans we have to agree that evil is even a real thing. We have to accept that evil exists and is a force in humanity. We have to agree on an acceptable definition of what activity or behavior is evil. Humanity does not have this agreement, different cultures have different values, but most cultures at least have a conception of evil, even if they disagree on the definition. Some extreme religious cultures view blaspheming God as evil and deserving of death, while other cultures (I would argue more civilized ones) would view the killing of a “blasphemer” as evil or immoral. Anyone that accepts the concept of evil and also believes in God is confronted with the Epicurean dilemma, even if they might not directly acknowledge it. In philosophy this is known as The Problem of Evil. Attempts to answer this problem have been made over the many thousands of years, usually by people trying to justify a belief in God.

I believe this happens because as humans we have a strong desire to answer the question “why?” Why is the world this way? Why would God allow this? Why do bad things happen to good people? In a way I am asking why. Why do we need to know why? The stand-up gag about a 3 year old constantly asking his dad why is a classic bit in comedy. I would say our desire to know why is not merely strong, it is pathological. This desire has driven most of Western thought and science. We want to understand our world. Not every philosophy or culture assigns as much importance to the question why, however. Buddhism sees no need to explain the nature of God or the origins of the universe. To know why in these cases is simply misguided desire and a waste of time. In a way Buddhism is disputing the notion that there is always some answer to the question why.

Sometimes, I believe, there is no why. Because we can view cause and effect in nature, allowing us to make scientific discoveries about how things work, we wrongly assume that cause and effect is a principle that applies everywhere. We may learn one day how the universe came into existence, and in a way that answers why, but in a way it does not. If we never make contact with a God or gods, we can still ask, what is the purpose of this universe, why are we here? I doubt there is any answer to this question. There is no why. There is no greater purpose or answer to discover here. We exist, we came into being, and it is up to us to assign our own meaning to this existence. On a personal level, I don’t find any need to have some made up story about God’s plan for the world or the afterlife to find meaning in this world. There is meaning in struggling to survive in this harsh universe, to make our mark that we existed and flourished in spite of the odds.  The very concept of existing and discovering more about our world and the universe is exhilarating to me, and I don’t need any greater meaning or purpose than that.

Religious Freedom or Religious Tyranny

Recent events involving how the world’s two most dominant religions, Christianity and Islam, treat gay people have brought the question of religious freedom to the forefront. Christians in the United States have been in the news lately for denying service to gays, most notably some bakeries, a pizza place, and an auto mechanic. In the Muslim world in some places gays are being murdered simply for being gay, such as in Iraq in lands controlled by the terror group ISIS. In some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, the death penalty for homosexuality is sometimes applied, and is an accepted part of the law. In lieu of the death penalty, other harsh punishments can be involved. These intolerant behaviors are usually defended against critics by making claims to the need for religious freedom, the ability to exercise one’s belief, and the requirement that we tolerate religious belief. Ironically, we are asked to tolerate what I view as intolerance. These situations raise a host of questions, which I will try to sum up briefly: Should religious people be free to exercise their beliefs? When does that exercise of religious belief negatively impact others, and how should the law be applied to exercises of those beliefs?   Where do we draw the line?

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Criticizing Religion Is Not Hate Speech or Bigotry

As the new atheist movement has grown on the internet over the last two decades, religious people are increasingly referring to any criticisms of their religions as hate speech or bigotry.  This has created a situation where the religious, especially in the West, have become unwitting allies of the cultural Left, as the religious are making a specific claim to moral relativism to shield themselves from criticism. Any criticism or critique of religion is bigotry because everyone is entitled to their religious beliefs and you must “respect” those beliefs. I submit to you that religion should not be immune from criticism, and that it is extremely harmful when it is. So first let’s look at the definition of the word bigot, according to Merriam-Webster:

a person who strongly and unfairly dislikes other people, ideas, etc. : a bigoted person; especially : a person who hates or refuses to accept the members of a particular group (such as a racial or religious group)

A key feature of a bigot is someone who strongly dislikes or hates a group that is different from them. Today, people (usually Social Justice Warriors on the internet) are conflating bigotry with any and all criticism of an idea or group of religious people. If we are not allowed to think and speak critically about any and all ideas, then we are truly lost as a society. There are big consequences for this attitude, especially as they relate to the principle of freedom of speech, and how important that is for living in a free society. Furthermore, describing criticism of religion as hate speech implies that this speech should be banned by the law and simply disallowed. This to me seems to be one of the worst consequences of adopting moral relativism and cultural subjectivity as the most important aspects of someone’s worldview, and is extremely harmful to freedom of speech, a founding principle of a free society. The notion that religion or other ideas can’t be criticized is also harmful to society in general.

Protecting unpopular or controversial speech is essential to protecting freedom of speech for everyone. Whether you like someone’s speech or not, as long as that speech does not incite violence or harm to another person, it is allowed. This principle in freedom of speech is essential to a free society. If people cannot speak openly and honestly about what they believe for fear of reprisal, then they are not truly free. The ability to criticize bad ideas and bad governments is essential to maintaining that freedom. The term hate speech itself implies that some speech should be banned, violating the principle of freedom of speech. Unpopular or controversial speech needs to be protected because it is the most likely to be attacked. When someone says something I don’t like, I should not have the ability to take away their freedom or their life for it.

Religions or ideologies that make claims about the supernatural, and then try to apply their beliefs to the law deserve criticism and scrutiny. If religion can’t be criticized it makes it that much easier for them to take control of the cultural narrative and apply their beliefs to the law in spite of dissenting opinions, which have been silenced. Any criticism is shouted down as bigotry or hate speech, and critical thinking goes out the window. I don’t want to live in a world where that is the case. I want to live in a world where there is a marketplace of ideas, with the best ideas rising to the top. If your ideology or religion cannot take criticism, then it doesn’t belong in that marketplace.

I believe that the primary reason all criticism is attacked in this way is because religion can’t take criticism, it is designed to be accepted uncritically by the populace and believed in with a strong emotional fervor. Attacking any criticism as bigotry or hate speech shuts down the criticism, deflects it, and short circuits critical thinking in the minds of many listeners. People who are taught that all beliefs are equal and that you must respect all beliefs are prevented from thinking critically about ideas. Beliefs don’t deserve respect or special treatment, they deserve analysis. Criticism of an idea or belief is not bigotry. It doesn’t necessarily imply hatred or dislike of a person, it simply means that I don’t agree with your idea and here’s why. I choose not to believe it because of the following reasons. That’s not bigotry, that’s not hate speech, that’s common sense. The bottom line is, if your beliefs can’t stand up to scrutiny and can’t handle criticism without shouting the critics down, or worse even resorting to violent retaliation, then your beliefs probably don’t deserve to be taken seriously.

The Internet vs Religion

My own personal journey away from religion was fueled by my connection to the internet from a young age. I was raised in a very religious, Christian based family and church. In high school I went to religious schools. In high school I also attended a Christian “worldview” seminar two summers in a row in Colorado, at a place called Summit Ministries, in Manitou Springs. The purpose of Summit was to provide Christians about to enter into the college world the tools they would need to defend their religion against the naysayers, to equip them to fight and win the “culture war.” After my trip to Summit, I was filled with religious zeal, and figured since  I was on the internet all the time, even back in the late 90s, that I should carry the message of Christ to the non-believers I encountered on the internet.

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The Prosperity Gospel

Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, “Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.” And God granted his request.

– 1 Chronicles 4:10

One of the most odious movements to emerge from American Protestant Christianity in the last 20 years is what is popularly known as “The Prosperity Gospel.” Although the prosperity gospel first took hold in the United States in the 1950s, it wasn’t until the book The Prayer of Jabez came out in 2000 that the prosperity gospel really took off in the public consciousness. Written by Bruce Wilkinson, The Prayer of Jabez is based almost entirely on the above verse in 1 Chronicles in the Old Testament. The simple idea is that if a Christian is to repeat this prayer on a daily basis, their material and financial well-being will improve. The prosperity gospel revolves around the idea that faith is a contract with God, and as long as the Christian maintains his faith, he will be rewarded materially in this world. While some Christians roundly criticized the book and the theology underpinning it, The Prayer of Jabez was wildly popular. The book sold over 9 million copies and reached the New York Times bestseller list.

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