The Plank in your Own Eye

Yesterday, a tragedy struck France. It was certainly a tragedy of Stalinian proportions, but not in the way you’d think. While the twelve people of Charlie Habdo were murdered by extremists (whether Muslims or other), thousands died of other causes, cancer, and heart disease, and accidental causes. I realize my attempts at perspective may sound callous, but the disproportional response to terrorism has always bothered me. That being said, some people raise many valid points.

Matt Inman reposted an old comic of his in reply to the murders yesterday, an inflammatory comic poking fun of some of the more easily insulted tenets of many popular religion. The comic is titled “How to suck at your religion.”

I am not going to call it a sophisticated criticism, it is a webcomic by a comedian. I enjoy it, and it certainly raises some valid points, if crude. The point I want to make is that it is a comic about “How to suck at your religion,” not “Why your religion sucks.” That is a very important distinction, and one that many people have certainly failed to make. I slipped into a gopher hole on this one, and found that the gopher hole runs very deep. The first article I came across was this one, a harsh criticism of the comic, calling it blasphemous, unintelligent, unfunny drivel. Helpfully, it goes panel by panel through the comic, making it easier to digest and deconstruct.

The author of this post mentions that the priest in panel one is wearing a Roman collar, a fact that they claim means Matt Inman has taken a direct shot at the author’s religion. BAM! Harsh criticism leveled! But remember the distinction; it is about how to suck at your religion. I have met many judgmental Catholic adherents, and whether you agree that the Catholic religion accepts this or not, the point is this; judging others means you suck at your religion.

The second panel deals with Galileo, and claims that it is so misrepresented that it is not even worth addressing. The author links a Catholic Education source to defend the Catholic church; on the surface, this makes sense–but when dealing with history, I prefer cross-reference. Certainly, when you are dealing with verifiable historical data, it pays to go to several sources to iron out wrinkles.

In any case, I’ll go over some details that would render Mr Inman’s take on the affair at least partially accurate, somewhat falsifying the Catholic writer’s clearly closely held beliefs. In 1614, a letter written by Galileo was delivered to the Qualifiers, a pre-torture arm of the Inquisition. In 1615, several depositions were made to the Inquisition regarding this affair, Galileo’s Heliocentric view. On February 24, 1616, the Inquisition levied their first judgment of Galileo, saying: ”

On February 24 the Qualifiers delivered their unanimous report: “…the idea that the Sun is stationary is foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture…”; while the Earth’s movement “receives the same judgement in philosophy and … in regard to theological truth it is at least erroneous in faith.”

“On February 26, Galileo was called to Bellarmine’s residence and ordered, to abstain completely from teaching or defending this doctrine and opinion or from discussing it… to abandon completely.” -—The Inquisition’s injunction against Galileo, 1616.

So to say “The Church was totally on his side omg you guys, why get up in arms?” is to ignore a lot of the Galileo affair. The affair was far from over, though; Galileo was ordered to stand trial on suspicion of heresy in 1633, “for holding as true the false doctrine taught by some that the sun is the center of the world.”

Galileo was found guilty, and the sentence of the Inquisition, issued on 22 June 1633, was in three essential parts:
Galileo was found “vehemently suspect of heresy,” namely of having held the opinions that the Sun lies motionless at the center of the universe, that the Earth is not at its centre and moves, and that one may hold and defend an opinion as probable after it has been declared contrary to Holy Scripture. He was required to “abjure, curse, and detest” those opinions.
He was sentenced to formal imprisonment at the pleasure of the Inquisition. On the following day this was commuted to house arrest, which he remained under for the rest of his life.
His offending [book] Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems was banned; and in an action not announced at the trial, publication of any of his works was forbidden, including any he might write in the future.

In 1758 the Catholic Church dropped the general prohibition of books advocating heliocentrism from the Index of Forbidden Books.

So you know what, you’re right! The Catholic Church was totally on Galileo’s side the whole time, and never stood in his way! I am glad Matt Inman got it so wrong that you didn’t have to explain yourself, because I can’t see where your explanation would contradict his comic–it would have gotten awkward had you explained yourself. That was a long rebuttal of panel 2, but I thought it was worth saying. As the very blogger I am rebutting said, “… for those who actually care enough about the facts to check them.” And I do. So I did.

The rebuttal of panel three, which addresses stem cell research, is the idea that life begins at conception. Certainly it does, that cannot be countered, but the idea that life begins at conception is to put an equal value on a blastocyst that one does on a fully conscious human being. To put it another way, which I’ve explained at greater length in the past, the blastocyst is incapable of suffering, while a human in need of stem cell therapeutics most certainly is. To minimize suffering, embryonic stem cells are a valuable source of potential. I will be addressing a second article later in this post that raises an alternate concern with embryonic stem cell research, but I am trying to group this in a point by point way, so we can wait until I get there.

Point four is what I often like to call the political gambit; while it is generally accepted that a child can be “A Catholic Child,” the idea of “A Republican Child” feels odd when rolling off the tongue. Generally, you’d say “That child’s parents vote republican.” This is a question of parenting ethics, and a deep well of research into child psychology has been performed to this end, one far more deep than I could ever hope to plumb. Generally speaking, a child will believe what they are told to believe. I think this is fairly clear when dealing with the issue of Santa Claus or Faeries; they will generally believe for a very long time, at least until they are told that it is false or find incontrovertible proof. Santa is certainly highly unlikely as a physical entity, that is easy to prove.

But how would a child become disillusioned with religion, as compared to Santa? God is often said to help those who help themselves, so a faithful person who has a very rough time is often said to be tried by God, or that God works in mysterious ways. Escape hatch opened.

What about prayer? Surely, we could test prayer! And we have, finding either that there is no discernible effect of intercessory prayer, or that there is a small effect that is traced to a placebo effect. Double blind studies tend to come out with “no discernible effect,” and that should be worrisome.

The evidence, in any case, does not point to a God that certainly exists. It doesn’t point to one that doesn’t exist, either, but that is largely because God functions exactly like Superman; when placed against a piece of evidence he hasn’t seen before, the writers will often attribute to him some power or property that works specifically and only to rebut that point. In any case, the jury is out; you can believe, or you can not believe. If you tell your children to believe, there is overwhelming data that states that most will. Some choose not to, but they are still the minority (a growing minority, mind you. Wonder why that is.).

Point five raised by this writer is a smoke bomb at best; it ignores the argument. They then say that “Of course, if the Resurrection is true, that claim is false.” The sentence rests squarely on the statement “if the resurrection is true,” with the assumption being that it is. Just two days ago I wrote about the historicity of the Bible at some length, and cited references; in any case, the Resurrection is just as much an article of faith as is the afterlife. No one has ever recorded what happens after we die (well, we die, scientifically, but you know what I mean), whether we have a soul, what makes a soul, what happens to our theoretical soul, etc. They then compare being agnostic towards the afterlife as comparable to being agnostic about the answer to 3×3. I will not take the easy way and say that this is self evident, that would be somewhat hypocritical of me. Here, have some of my legendary art as rebuttal of this point:

doingthemaths

Show me a similar proof that there is an afterlife, then we can go deeper into this discussion.

Panel six is rebutted by stating that “I totally don’t have weird anxieties about sex, it is just that it can give you broken hearts, broken homes, rampant STDs, HIV/AIDS, unplanned pregnancies!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1111!!1ii” You are right, it could. That is why safe sex is taught. Abstinence only education has been shown to fail almost universally to stop the very things you are afraid of. Your “totally not sexual anxieties” are standing in the way of real improvements in the areas of teen STD and teen pregnancy rates.

Point seven relies on the idea that “I believe my religion is the ultimate good, so it would be the ultimate evil for me to not share it,” and that is a belief you have. I am an ex-member of your Church, though, so I suppose that makes me some kind of evil. Certainly, I’ve been called similar.

I won’t lie, for point eight I am not really sure what the author is trying to prove. It completely dodges a debate and says Catholics don’t believe this thing. Again, it is important to remember that the title of the comic is “how to suck at your religion,” not “how your religion sucks.” If you don’t identify with panel 8, then maybe it isn’t about you — the thing I fear is that the author does identify with panel eight. Whatevs. We move along.

Point nine has been extensively studied, and polls show that many voters will vote strictly on, say, a pro-life stance. This is not purely religious, I will give you that; there are many people who are pro-life that are not religious, but the pro-life movement tends to be a vast majority of religious people (even if not based on explicitly religious convictions). Yes, I think it would be safe to say that some people certainly vote based on their religious beliefs; if you are not one of them, please refer to the title of the comic; maybe you don’t suck at your religion. Maybe.

Number ten calls Atheists who fear Muslims smug, and kind of implies a level of cowardice. If you feel bullied, Mr or Ms Catholic, perhaps you may remember that people were executed by the Inquisition as late as the 1860s. If you feel bullied, perhaps you should count the number of dead at the hands of the Crusades. If you think “That bullying was in the past, so it doesn’t matter,” then just wait until tomorrow, and the atheist who bullied you yesterday doesn’t matter.

There is a reason I chose “The Plank in your Own Eye” as the title for this post. For those who have not remembered the Gospels by rote, it is a reference to Matthew 7, where it says you must address your own faults before addressing those of others. Calling atheists bullies is… Well, being as the United States identifies as some 90% plus religious, I would think throwing around words like that should be done carefully. It might sound to some atheists like you are bullying them.

The author makes point eleven, citing a terrible irony, without ever feeling ironic. I would say I find that ironic, but I don’t; irony is defined by something not expected, and I was not surprised by this. Asking someone to be more tolerant as a humorist and satirist makes them “hurt, hinder, and condemn you.” You are right, the INJUSTICE OF IT ALL!

Point twelve implies that the Matt Inman is neither calm nor reasonable, but again, he is a humorist and satirist. If you wanted a respectful debate, I am afraid that The Oatmeal is no place to find it. Being as the atheist does believe that religion serves as somewhat a placebo (not believing in the afterlife, we see believing in the afterlife as a sort of wishful thinking), we are unfortunately immune to its effects. It isn’t even that we don’t want to take the placebo; I wish I could still believe. It is just that once you know a pill is sugar, the placebo effect is mostly gone. Without some major restructuring of my own beliefs, it will be very difficult for me to return to religion.

The other thing about a placebo is that if you believe it will work, it likely will work. Or at least, has a chance to work. The author’s view expressed near the end basically says “It isn’t a placebo because it is totally medicine, and I know that because I know that.” This is not meant to insult, it really isn’t, it is just meant to point out that the argument is unlikely to sway even the most casual atheist, and making it will not win any points in a debate, nor change the mind of anyone in open dialogue. This isn’t calling you down, just trying to open your mind to the point of the other side.

If God enriches your life, more power to you. I do not feel His embrace, I do not feel enriched by Him. To me, if I came back to religion, it would be in the belief that I have accepted the placebo back into my life. Just because you believe it is not a placebo does not change my own beliefs.

The final lines is perfect, because it is the line that makes it easiest to show that the author has missed the distinction between “how not to suck at your religion,” and “how your religion sucks”:

“The comic can mischaracterize and distort, but in the face of actual Catholicism, it’s silent. It has no coherent or compelling answer in response to the Catholic claim. Snark simply has no retort to truth.” – Shameless Popery

There are many Catholics who would think the comic is talking about them, and many who do not. I think there is something to that thought.

We move on to something that has been swirling in my head for a while, and it was brought about by this article. I do not want to demean Patheos, I often find their articles enlightening, even handed, and a joy to read. Even this article, while making some points I find objectionable, is at least enjoyable to read.

When I read his rebuttal to the argument of stem cells last night, it set such a fire in my mind that I could not sleep. I stayed awake, shuffling through my mind all of the points that I could write down to rebut what he says.

The Catholic stance is that adult stem cell research is the best thing that has come along in literally forever (God exists outside of time, therefore does not count in ‘forever’). He cites many good studies showing adult stem cell results as being wildly successful, and certainly they are. I would offer this statement on Brown University’s Biomedical research website to show that the Catholic line “Embryonic stem cells show no promise” can be easily rebutted with but five seconds of Google.

Even so, he is right; more has come from Adult Stem Cells, despite the statement by Brown saying Embryonic Stem Cells show broader promise. Why is that?

Well, in most of the United States (which is still politically and scientifically the most powerful nation on the Earth) embryonic stem cell research is discouraged or outright illegal. It has little investment, and research labs spend much less time on it. This obviously isn’t because it does not show promise (again, see Brown’s statement). It is because of the political pressure to not spend on it.

Denying funding to one field, and wildly encouraging another, waiting 15 years, then comparing them shows all the honesty of a parent who does the following.

Give child one 5 cents. Give child two five dollars. Tell them to go buy whatever they want.

Child one comes back with a single sour candy. Child two comes back with a bag full of candy. You reply thus: “Obviously child two is vastly superior in the world of business and financial management! Look at how good his results are!”

The above is not intended to be a straw man argument (when I use straw men intentionally, I do try to make mention of it). I can seriously not see the difference, and would ask any reader to point out any obvious flaw in my metaphor. Please do.

We move on to the Galileo affair, again. Many of the same points are made, though much better, with one glaring error. The author claims that the Inquisition dropped all charges–that is odd, as it seems to me that two guilty verdicts were delivered, 17 years separated.

While I do not agree with this author’s belief about passing religion on to your children, he makes a much better argument for it than did the author of the previous article. He is correct that he supernatural is indeed a part of human nature, but does not seem to make any point as to why his particular supernatural belief is more valid than any of the previous, which I believe is the point Inman wanted to make. In the age of rationalism we live in, though, more and more people have thrown off the shackles of the Supernatural as we are able to explain more and more of our universe without invoking the name of YWH, YVHV, God, Allah, Vishnu, Ba’al, or others. Perhaps there is a supernatural agent, but given the state of the world, I would not believe that it is the Christian God. This is my belief, of course, and you are welcome to disagree. I merely would like to point out that telling your children that your belief is the correct one and that others are wrong relies on a whole poop ton of other people who believe that same idea also being wrong.

The argument made against sexual anxieties by this author, in contrast, relies a great deal on a straw man–or at the very least, ignoring correlating and causal data. “The current (oh-so-secular) sexual culture…” he calls it, and then blames the STD rate upon it. I will agree; if teens abstained from sex, there would be fewer STDs, pregnancies, etc. But remember just above where you mentioned that supernatural belief is human nature? Well sex is human nature at its very core, and teens tend to be the most ill equipped to resist those urges. You can believe God because it is human nature, but teens should abstain from sex because… Question mark? Look, I would love it if teens would abstain from sex, I really would. I really, really would. Teens are stupid, and ill equipped to deal with the outcomes of sex. But they will keep having sex, no matter how much you try to stop them from doing it. So teach them safe sex, for God’s sake. (That was a pun. I stand by its use.)

Overall, I very much liked this author, but due to his ability to make a strong argument, I thought it worth taking the time to point out where I disagree with him. It was a wonderful piece, and I love the fairness and level-headedness on display here, and thank the author for writing it. My only fear is that because the author is so good at what he does, the parts I disagree with would go unchallenged by someone who is equally fair minded (Yes, I just stroked my own ego aggressively, but many atheists would just say “He is wrong,” and move along. They would use more colorful language. I do not believe that such language has any place in this discussion.). I wanted to rebut the points I disagree with, and acknowledge the good points.

I am truly sorry if that came across as condescending; I can see it in the words, and I apologize if that is the subtext you read. I respect your stance, I truly, truly do. Thank you for writing that article, even if it was three years ago and you will never read mine. But I do very much respect you.

To the first author, who also will never read this, I quote below the opening verses of Matthew 7, because I do not believe you have the theological legs to stand on that my second author did:

3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

Thanks for reading this long and winding article!

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