Tuesday, November 11, 2014

How to Suck at Your Critique of Religion

This post is a response to “How to Suck at Your Religion,” an anti-religious comic strip from the website "The Oatmeal," created and ran by Matthew Inman. I read it recently after noticing a link to it on Facebook. After explaining a couple of my objections to the friend who posted it, I decided that it would be worthwhile to give the comic a more thorough treatment. This is not a rant or an emotional lashing out, but a calm and calculated response intended to set the record straight on some misinformation and misunderstandings.  I will list all the questions posed in the comic and give a short response to each.  To see the comic for yourself and get a better sense of Mr. Inman's approach, you can click here.*

* Please note that the comic contains some offensive and vulgar language.

"Does your religion make you judge people?"
"Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get" (Mt 7:1-2).
Since Jesus clearly taught us not to judge other people throughout the gospels, the answer is no, my religion does not "make me judge people"–it forbids me to do so. The fact that there are many hypocritical Christians who are judgmental, especially in modern countries like the U.S., is an unfortunate reality that tells us about those people, but not about Christianity itself. Saint Paul also warned the early Christians in Rome against judging others:
Therefore you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things (Rm 2:1).
"Does your religion hinder the advancement of science, technology, or medicine?"

Christianity provided the conceptual framework necessary for the use of scientific methodology, evidenced by the way science flourished in the Christian West as opposed to the non-Christian East, where the dominating philosophies typically saw physical reality as less predictable and intelligible. C.S. Lewis summarized this framework well:
Men became scientific because they expected Law in Nature, and they expected Law in Nature because they believed in a Legislator (Miracles).
The Catholic Church founded the college system, the Laws of Evidence in science, and the first hospitals. Also, numerous Catholics throughout the centuries have been at the forefront of scientific progress. This is a list (but by no means an exhaustive one) of some of the most noteworthy Catholic men and women scientists:

Mariano Artigas (1938–2006) – Spanish physicist, philosopher and theologian who received the Templeton Foundation Prize in 1995.
André-Marie Ampère (1775–1836) – One of the main discoverers of electromagnetism
Stephen Barr (1953–present) – Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Delaware and a member of its Bartol Research Institue
Henri Becquerel (1852–1908) – Awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for his co-discovery of radioactivity
Giovanni Alfonso Borelli (1608–1679) – Father of modern biomechanics
Louis Braille (1809–1852) – Inventor of the Braille reading and writing system
Gerty Cori (1896–1957) – Biochemist who was the first American woman win a Nobel Prize in science (1947)
Gaspard-Gustave Coriolis (1792–1843) – Formulated laws regarding rotating systems, which later became known as the Coriolis effect
Charles-Augustin de Coulomb (1736–1806) – Physicist who developed Coulomb's law
Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) – Catholic cleric and first person to formulate a comprehensive heliocentric cosmology
René Descartes (1596–1650) – Father of modern philosophy and analytic geometry
Alberto Dou (1915-2009) – Spanish Jesuit priest who was president of the Royal Society of Mathematics, member of the Royal Academy of Natural, Physical, and Exact Sciences, and one of the foremost mathematicians of his country.
Enrico Fermi (1901–1954) – Awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for his work in induced radioactivity
Georges Lemaître (1894–1966) – Priest and Father of the Big Bang theory
Gregor Mendel (1822–1884) – Priest and Father of genetics
Johannes Peter Müller (1801–1858) – Founder of modern physiology
Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) – French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer and philosopher
Anthony Rizzi (?–present) – Physicist who solved the problem of angular momentum in Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity (1997), and founder and president of the Institute for Advanced Physics
Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) – Anatomist, scientist, mathematician, and painter
Alessandro Volta (1745–1827) – Physicist known for the invention of the battery

Given the large number of groundbreaking scientists who believed in the teachings of the Catholic Church and worked under her patronage, it's safe to say that the Church does not hinder the process of science, technology, or medicine. Here is the Church's view of science and its practice:
Methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God. The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are (Catechism of the Catholic Church 159).
Following this question, Inman digs up the dead horse of the Galileo controversy for beating. While there were certainly bishops and other people in the Church who opposed Galileo, their primary disagreement was on the grounds that he had not successfully proven his theory, which was true, since the observational technique he was using at the time, stellar parallax, could not definitively prove whether the Earth revolved around the Sun or vice-versa. Also, contrary to what the comic suggests, Galileo did not "spend the rest of his life in a dungeon." He was actually put on house arrest, and was treated quite well. This sentence was given to him because his work was being funded by the Church, and he disobeyed the pope's request that he wait until he had conclusive evidence to support his theory before claiming it to be fact. Galileo not only prematurely claimed his theory to be true, but openly mocked the pope with a cartoon character named "Simplicio," which is Italian for "simple-minded" or "idiot." Non-Catholic historian of science, Gary Ferngren, concluded the following about how the Galileo affair has been historically understood:
The traditional picture of Galileo as a martyr for intellectual freedom and as a victim of the Church’s opposition to science has been demonstrated to be little more than a caricature (Ferngren).
"Did you choose your religion, or did someone else choose it for you?"

From the time I was a young child until my later teen years, I was Catholic more or less because my parents were Catholic. As we mature, we have to decide whether or not we really believe what we've been taught by our parents, whether we will claim the faith of our parents as our own or abandon it. To claim that a belief is false because of how that belief originated is known as the "genetic fallacy," a mistake commonly made by atheists when criticizing religious belief. The reason the genetic fallacy is so common is that it allows the person making it to think they have invalidated a person's beliefs, and so think they are justified in not listening to that person's actual reasons for believing. In addition to this point, there have been multitudes of highly educated people throughout history, as well as in modern times, who were not raised as Christians or even theists but came to believe later in life.

In this section of the comic, Inman also uses one of the most cliché and misunderstood images for God––an "invisible bearded flying man." This is such a mediocre oversimplification of what any serious monotheist means by the word "God" that it really doesn't even merit a response. However, there is at least one unintended but positive consequence of an atheist's use of images like this for God (and similar ones, e.g. the cosmic Santa Claus, sky fairy, flying spaghetti monster, etc.). The use of such images prevents the waste of precious time in argument, since the person who uses them immediately reveals that they know very little to nothing about theism or the classical arguments for the existence of God.

"Does your religion give you weird anxieties about your sexuality?"

The only anxieties I've had about my sexuality were present during my high school and early college years, when I had bought into the secular culture's idea of what the purpose of human sexuality is, namely, to provide pleasure and the immediate gratification of any and all sexual desires, regardless of whether or not they conform to the design or purpose inherent in the human body. The Church's teachings about human sexuality, especially as articulated by Saint John Paul II in his Theology of the Body, provide a clear, consistent, and complete understanding of the purpose and meaning of intimacy, marriage, and sexual unity between men and women. Without a basic understanding the Church's overall view of human nature, which is the foundation for her moral teaching as regards sexuality, it's difficult for non-believers to have productive dialogue with Catholics. It is no use to extract one specific teaching of the Church, say, the immorality of using contraception, and complain that it doesn't make any sense. To do this is to take out of context one piece that was meant to be understood as part of a whole, like examining a human kidney on a table and wondering, "What the heck is this thing for?" Observe it inside of a body and you'll find out.

"Do you validate your beliefs by constantly trying to convince other people to believe the same thing?"
Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you...” (Mt 28:18-20).
While it may not always be prudent or effective to go door-to-door like the followers of some religious traditions, as Inman pokes fun at, Jesus commanded (not suggested) that his disciples go forth and spread the Good News, the Gospel. Also, while it is uncharitable to "force your religion" on other people, it's a mistake to equate all efforts at evangelization to forcing or imposing. The role of the Church is to propose, not impose, Christ's message of Salvation to the world, and her mission is nothing other than the salvation of souls. This of course is only possible if Catholics are willing to take the time and effort to reach out to other people.

"Do you mock other religions for believing crazy things?"

I sincerely try not to mock other religions, although I have to admit that I am guilty of this at times. Again, far from being a feature of Christianity, the mockery of other religions by Christians constitutes a failure to love on their part. Also, it's hypocritical that Inman is condemning mockery here when he harshly mocks religion and religious people throughout this comic. The Catholic Church has a high respect for other religious traditions and their followers, as indicated in the following quote from the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions:
Other religions found everywhere try to counter the restlessness of the human heart, each in its own manner, by proposing "ways," comprising teachings, rules of life, and sacred rites. The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ 'the way, the truth, and the life' (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself (Nostra Aetate, p. 2)
"Do you vote based solely on your religious beliefs?"

Given how foundational religious beliefs are to a person's understanding of reality, is it really any surprise to the skeptic that religious people would vote primarily on the basis of those beliefs? A person's religious beliefs include their understanding of what human beings are, what our purpose is, what constitutes authentic human flourishing, and what our natural rights are based on these factors. That being said, what ideas could be more fundamental that a religious person should vote based on those instead? I can think of none. For example, if my beliefs tell me that all human beings have the right to life, even unborn children, then I can only conclude that abortion is a gross violation of basic human rights and dignity. Therefore, while there are certainly other important issues in need of consideration, none of them can take political precedence over an issue as paramount as abortion.
"Are you so dangerously extremist that even a silly web cartoonist can't draw a picture of your prophet without fearing for his life?"

This is clearly a shot at Islam, and at Islamic extremists in particular, so I don't feel that it's necessary for me to offer a response on behalf of Christianity. In fact, this is one of the few questions that I actually found to be a fair one, and any Muslim who is that extreme and violent should certainly reexamine himself or herself, because such conduct is by no means a necessary or even mainstream interpretation of the Quran.

"Would you die for your religion?"
Martyrdom is the supreme witness given to the truth of the faith: it means bearing witness even unto death. The martyr bears witness to Christ who died and rose, to whom he is united by charity. He bears witness to the truth of the faith and of Christian doctrine. He endures death through an act of fortitude (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2473).
If by "Would you die for your religion?" the question means, "Would you die before renouncing your religious beliefs?" then I would like to think that, if faced with either rejecting my faith in Christ and living, or remaining faithful to Him and dying, I would choose the latter and be counted among the countless martyrs who have witnessed to Christianity over the last 2000 years. However, since I can't begin to imagine being in such a terrifying situation, I can't say definitively that I would die for my religion––I might be too much of a coward. Dying for what you believe is by no means unique to Christianity, and a willingness to die for your beliefs does not in itself prove that your beliefs are true. However, it does prove that you are sincere in your belief (liars make terrible martyrs) and so the person who objects to your beliefs must do so on grounds of reason and historical evidence, instead of attacking your motives for believing.

"Would you kill for your religion? [Or] hurt, hinder, or condemn in the name of God?"
“You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire" (Mt 5:21-22).
It is necessary here to distinguish between killing as a means of conquest, terror, or oppression, versus killing as a means of self-defense or defense of innocent life. The former is clearly inconsistent with the teachings of Christ, while the latter can be justifiable, according to Catholic moral teaching, provided certain conditions are met. These conditions are outlined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (p. 2309), and they include:
  1. The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
  2. All other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
  3. There must be serious prospects of success;
  4. The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition
To answer the question then, if I perceived a threat to my life or the lives of other innocent people, and the above conditions were met (as well as I could determine given the amount of time I had to respond), then yes, I would take another person's life. It is because of this understanding that I have no reservations about being a member of the Illinois National Guard, in an infantry unit that has deployed for combat operations to both Iraq and Afghanistan (before I was there).

"Does your religion inspire you to help people?"
"If any one has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth" (1 Jn 3:17-18).
Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others (Php 2:4).
"Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me" (Mt 25:40).
It's ironic (but not surprising) how this question presupposes that helping people is good and something that we should all do. When Christians fail to help others whom they are fully capable of helping, they are failing to love as their Savior commanded them, and therefore living in a manner that is inconsistent with their worldview. On the other hand, atheists who fail to help others whom they are fully capable of helping are living in a manner consistent with their worldview, since their view maintains that human beings are randomly evolved collections of matter that have no real purpose or destination. Regardless of what a person believes about God, everyone believes that you should always obey your own conscience. This uniquely human faculty puts us in touch with objective moral values and duties that are real and binding, regardless of time, place, or culture. This is why, despite the efforts people make to avail themselves of it, they find the moral law inescapable. Saint Paul had this insight:
When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.  They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus (Rm 2:14-16).
"Does it make you happier?"

Having spent several years chasing happiness using all of the world's methods, including popularity, money, possessions, drinking, partying, shallow relationships, with a pervading sense of selfishness throughout, I can say with confidence that my religion makes me happier. The happiness does not come from delusion, like the popular delusion of spending all of your time worrying about your looks, your car, the number of "likes" on your Facebook post, or your favorite sports team, none of which offer any real or lasting meaning. Rather, the happiness that my faith gives me is in the hope that comes from placing my trust in God, admitting to Him my brokenness, experiencing His love and forgiveness, and striving to love him more each day. As Saint Faustina wrote in her diary:
I want to love You as no human soul has ever loved You before; and although I am utterly miserable and small, I have nevertheless cast the anchor of my trust deep down into the abyss of Your mercy (Diary, 283).
"Does it help you cope with the fact that you are a bag of meat sitting on a rock in outer space, and that someday you will DIE, and you are completely powerless, helpless, and insignificant in the wake of this beautiful cosmic [crap]storm we call existence?  If it helps you with that, carry on with your religion – just keep it to yourself."

This is a textbook example of "begging the question," which is a type of circular reasoning in which the conclusion is assumed to be true. The person asking the question hasn't established the truth of part of their question or argument. An example of this would be the question, "Have you stopped beating your wife?" One of the funny things about this comic is that, with all of the questions it asks about "your religion," it never bothers to ask about the truth of any religion. Is it true? The only reason anyone in the world should ever believe anything at all is because it's true, not because it suits your personality, makes you feel better, or because it is useful to yourself or to society. The comment at the end, "If it helps you with that, carry on with your religion," is not a gesture of good will but a patronizing insult, a pat on the head as if to say "Aww, isn't he just adorable with his cute little religious beliefs!"

The Problem With Skepticism

Instead of an honest search for the truth and an openness to the possibility that what some religion teaches might actually be true, or at least have some elements of truth in it, skeptics like the author of this comic presume from the outset of discussion that all religion is unreasonable and ridiculous. Typically, such people maintain that they will only believe something if it can be shown to be true by the scientific method. This view, known as "scientism," is self-destructive, since it is itself not a scientific claim but a philosophical one, and therefore not provable by the scientific method. This philosophy is a convenient one to hold, and is often the mark of an intellectually lazy or prideful person. Instead of promoting a fruitful dialogue, the skeptic merely affords himself the luxury of sitting back and criticizing the beliefs of everyone else, spending all of his time on the offense, since he has no positive content of his own to defend. When your world view exists only as a negation or rejection of another world view, you're inevitably going to find yourself becoming increasingly close-minded, negative, and incapable of relating well to others.

Mr. Inman did well to add the words "someday you will DIE" in this last question. Indeed, some day we will all die. I can only hope and pray that he, along with his audience members who criticize and mock religion and religious people with such pride and confidence, approach their own deaths with much greater humility and openness. This comic is nothing more than a collection of myths, clichés, and misunderstandings. However, it may be useful for at least one thing––as an exercise for students in an Intro to Logic class to help them recognize logical fallacies. Hopefully, through continued efforts in education, especially in the areas of history and philosophy, websites such as The Oatmeal will eventually have no audience through which to spread such gross distortions about religion and religious people. That is one of the downsides of the internet, that it makes it possible for people with little to no credibility on a subject to spread misinformation about it like a cancer. Fortunately, even a cancer can be treated and put into remission.

Thank you for reading, and God bless you!

Under the Mercy,
Chris Trummer


Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britain). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition. New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, 1994. Print.

Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd Ed. Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000. Print.

Catholic Church. Nostra Aetate. Vatican II Documents. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011. Print.

C.S. Lewis. Miracles. London & Glasgow: Collins/Fontana, 1947. 2002 Edition. Print.

Maria Faustina Kowalska: Divine Mercy In My Soul. Marian Press, 2003. Print.

Ferngren, Gary, ed. Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction. JHU Press, 2002. Print.

No comments:

Post a Comment