Though I have a BA in theology, I have avoided posting on purely theological or religious themes on this blog. I might touch on religion, but not in a direct way. First, because it is not my main interest; second, because even very open-minded people get uncomfortable around straight-up discussions of religion or politics since they predictably devolve into cliche-driven shouting matches.
Still, a quote from George Carlin I stumbled across the other day got me thinking about different kinds of religious argument, and I think by extension it could also apply to all kinds of argument.
Carlin said that God “is an invisible man – living in the sky – who watches everything you do… and he has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and terror and torture and anguish where he will send you to live and suffer and and scream and choke for ever and ever… But He loves you!”
Now George Carlin was a satirist and satire always involves a certain amount of caricature, and I’m sure he would have admitted that. After all, the “invisible man in the sky” is such an infantile idea of God that I doubt even infants think of him that way. And only a sociopath would consider the 10 Commandments arbitrary; normal people recoil at liars, adulterers, murderers and thieves. But Carlin is making a serious argument insofar as he is asking how religious people reconcile religious moralism and the possibility of eternal damnation with the teaching that “God is love.”
I thought of four typical answers that religious people tend to make:
1) Fundamentalist: “George Carlin is being obtuse. There is no contradiction between God’s love, his insistence on good behavior and the possibility of hell.” Our fundamentalist friend might make an argument about human freedom and the need for morals, or perhaps about the august transcendence of the Divine Will, but we can safely assume he hasn’t thought too hard about the problem.
2) Apologetics: “We haven’t done enough to explain Church teaching to today’s world. Poor George needs a more contemporary approach to help him understand God’s love, moral living, and the beauty of hell.” The Apologist might make a You Tube video with a youthful minister using family anecdotes to illustrate how much pain God feels punishing his children, how God has given every possible means to help us avoid hell, etc.
3) Introspective: “Jesus himself taught about the commandments, hell, and the love of God, so that is non-negotiable for us, but we need to ask ourselves if Mr Carlin doesn’t have a point: has the Church been transmitting a loveless moralism? Do we see God as a taskmaster? Is our concept of hell really the one Jesus wanted to give us, or is it just something we use to scare people? We need an intellectual and spiritual renewal.” This guy takes a year-long sabbatical to meditate, study the scriptures, pray at George Carlin’s tomb, and at the end he writes a long book about it and everyone says “Oh, you’re just a conservative.”
4) Spineless: “Wow, Carlin is right! Either hell doesn’t exist, or it is empty except for Hitler and the Pope. We need a new Ten Commandments that emphasize respecting the environment, promoting diversity, and safe sex!” The New Ten Commandments is mentioned with approval on MSNBC but they are promptly forgotten by everyone who ever heard them, even by the guy who wrote them.
I suspect that many of our arguments are like this. Even when we have good intentions we are not listening very much to those who disagree with us, maybe in part because we are annoyed by people who get caught up in fads.