Stranger Things

Albert Camus preferred the label “absurdist” to “existentialist” to describe himself. The problem with labels is that we don’t always get to pick our own. As a young man fascinated with existentialism, I was introduced to Camus as one of their number that I should read. Categories, of course, are only abstractions to complex realities. So, for learning about existentialism Camus was recommended reading in those days. I selected The Stranger. So many years have passed since then that I only recollected a single part of the plot. Coming back to it as an adult is like walking down that beach a second time, unaware that you’ve just been down this way and something bad happened last time. Existentialism is like that.

Meursault is little effected by life. He has no strong opinions since, at the end of the day, everything seems pointless to him. He sheds no tears at the death of his mother because death is to be expected. When a heat stroke confuses him sufficiently he unintentionally kills a man. At his deposition the examining magistrate finds Meursault’s atheism inexplicable. In the face of the possible consequences of his actions, such indifference leads him to refer to the prisoner as “Mr. Antichrist.” Awaiting his execution, Meursault has a final confrontation with the priest that has come to his cell unbidden. The prisoner is convinced that even on death row he believes more sincerely than the man of the cloth. Camus’ story is surreal but realistic. A parable for his day and ours.

I’ve lamented before about the decline in philosophical literature. Taking philosophy straight requires the kind of concentration that I lack on the bus or before going to bed. Novels like The Stranger express such ideas in digestible form. The reader identifies with and despises Meursault. Why doesn’t he do something to help himself? Boredom and indifference will literally kill him. He is, however, steadfast, and that is something to admire. Along the way existential ideas are woven into the character’s thoughts and dialogue. Everyone is like an actor in a play—they did not write it, they simply perform the roles assigned to them. When it’s all over they end up in the same place. Absurdism and existentialism aren’t very far apart. They’re both categories devised to help us comprehend the enigma that we confront in books such as The Stranger. Meursault can’t give the chaplain any false belief since, as he notes, those who believe have more need of convincing than those who don’t.

Act of Balance

They call it the green-eyed monster. Jealousy. Under its weightier name of envy, it becomes a deadly sin. I often wonder if envy isn’t behind the debate that seems to have atheists and believers in religion talking past one another. Each seems to want, it appears to me, what the other has. Atheism has emerged in this new century as the current brand of intellectualism. Those who rely on reason alone don’t require comforting ideas such as God or salvation to get along in a world that has learnable rules and no magic. On the other hand, as an article by Barbara J. King on NPR points out, some religionists (Alister McGrath, while good for illustrative purposes, may not be the most representative choice) insist that atheists miss out on the meaning of life. Goal-oriented behavior, which we all understand, in a traditional monotheistic context is a divine mandate. We want to get to a better place either here on earth or after we die, and God has given a set of rules to follow to enable us to get there. Along the way, nature veritably drips with the dewy beauty with which God has infused the universe. Those Mr. Spocks among us miss it all, for their non-nonsense approach to reality.

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It’s pretty clear, as I’ve traced it out here, that the believers envy the reputation of solid rationality readily claimed by scientists. We all would like to be able to prove we’re right. Pointing to a law of physics and declaring, “this law can never be broken” carries a satisfaction that is rare in the theological world. Still, I wonder if some atheists aren’t just a little jealous of the teleology of having a goal set by someone else. Heaven and Hell may be passé, but you have to admit that having challenging rules laid out is somewhat invigorating. Doing something because you “should” can infuse a sense of meaning into life. Some people, if they could just do what they wanted, would opt for no more than eating, sleeping, and meeting biological necessities. They sometimes claim religion gives them the motivation to do more. It can make a difference if a deity takes the initiative.

You’ll never, however, be able to prove a religious point empirically. Gravity pulls things downward as surely as sparks fly upward. And we can send a person into space to prove it’s true. No astronauts, as far as we can prove, have ever seen God in space (RIP, Edgar). Reason and emotion, religion and science, thought and action—these things need each other in order for a balanced life. Problems arise, it seems to me, if we take an extreme position. Life is complicated, and simple answers just don’t apply. Perhaps if we allowed for a bit more balance, we might all find life just a bit more satisfying.

What You Pay For

VampireHunterWhen a friend pointed out the easily missed 2001 film, Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter, (well before Seth Grahame-Smith came up with the same role for Abraham Lincoln) I knew I was duty-bound to see it. As regular readers know, although I’m not a fan of gore or violence, I have a soft spot for vampire movies. Vampires, although often evil, are frequently presented as conflicted characters. As former humans they have some level of sympathy for their victims, while at the same time, all people are objectified for the vampire. We are food. This low-budget, independent film didn’t promise to deliver on many levels, but as the end credits show, they did shoot enough film to be able to cut out a few bloopers. The story, in as far as there is one, has Jesus fighting lesbian vampires in modern-day Ottawa (where the film was shot).

Not that the film was serious enough to invite critical dialogue, I did wonder what Jesus had to do with the whole thing apart from the shock value. There were a few cute moments, as when the “atheists” pile, clown-like, out of a car for an extended fight scene, but the lead could have been any character apart from one scene where a miracle does occur. Jesus fights with his fists, not with supernatural power. Tossing in Mary Magnum and “professional wrestler” El Santo, the movie came close to the screwball level of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. It’s difficult to critique a film where logic isn’t held accountable for the plot—the only thing to keep the film going is the action of a particular scene. And that, as I’ve intimated, can’t be counted on.

Interestingly enough, Jesus is treated throughout the film in a positive way. Although he doesn’t use supernatural powers, he is the “good guy” and is even tolerant of alternative lifestyles as long as love is the basis of relationships. The movie is biblically literate, using the Good Samaritan in a scene that underscores the accepting nature of the new millennium Jesus. The vampires don’t add much to the lore of the monster. They can be out in daylight because it is cheaper to shoot film that way, but the plot does come up with an explanation for it. Vampirism, at the end, can be healed by prayer, and when Mary Magnum, El Santo, and Jesus go their separate ways at the end, we are left wondering what all the fuss was about.

And a Blessed New Year

A new year is always a time for predictions and prognostications. Although the religious basis for New Year’s Day is often deeply sublimated, the changing of the year is one of the oldest and most widespread holidays worldwide. Since every beginning is also an ending, experts look forward to see what might be coming. A story by Nadia Whitehead on NPR presents the opinion of Pew Research Center that over the coming years the growth rate of Islam will surpass that of atheists, based partly on procreation trends. At the same time Christianity will continue to grow, but at a slower rate than Islam. This sacred number crunching suggests that by mid-century Muslims will represent the largest world religion, surpassing Christianity for the first time. As the article states, this is merely a projection based on current trends, and new developments could completely change the dynamics. I’m sure this trend will distress some people, but popular understanding of Islam is biased through media tactics to glean more readers.

Equally troubling to some will be the suggestion that atheism, considered by many to be enlightened, simply won’t keep up. Even though the trend is growing, particularly in Europe, and to some extent in the United States, those who side with no-faith tend to have fewer children than those who do. Religions have often seen procreation as a divine mandate, leading to the kind of growth figures businesses envy. Large families with children taught the family faith from the cradle ensures rising numbers, all things being equal. Again, it comes down to the numbers. Since history of religions is not a growing field of study, many may not realize that major religions have peacefully coexisted for millennia. Globalization, however, brings differing value systems into swift and intimate contact.

Coexist

In addition to organic growth rates, religions also grow through proselytization. Some groups, such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, have been phenomenally successful in their missionary efforts. Atheists often try to convert through reason or rhetoric. Religion tends to appeal more to the emotional needs that all people share, regardless of how deeply they are repressed. Reason, in the face of personal tragedy, is cold comfort. Not many people are willing to be steely about it, to “toughening up” when fate deals a cruel blow. Better to counterstrike with a caring deity or two. Religion is so basic to humanity that it is difficult to understand how major universities and centers of learning are trying to cut back on its study. And if it might be suggested that mine is a typical humanities-lover’s response, this time I can point to the numbers. Check with Pew; you don’t have to take my word for it.

Make Believer

SmthgFunnyMy brother is way cooler than I ever hope to be. While I was busy learning all a tween and teen could about the Bible, he was listening to Lou Reed and David Bowie and Black Sabbath. Since the “door” between our rooms was only a curtain, I heard the forbidden sounds and, despite myself, had to admit that I liked what I heard. In fact, I once gave a lecture on Christian influence in secular rock music, and found many students staring at me in surprise for knowing so much about such debased music. In any case, when my brother recommends a book I know it will always be an adventure. Thus I came to read Corey Taylor’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Heaven: (Or, How I Made Peace with the Paranormal and Stigmatized Zealots & Cynics in the Process). I didn’t want to admit to my brother that I’d never heard of Corey Taylor and that I couldn’t identify a Slipknot song even on Spotify, but the book sounded interesting, blending as it does bad-boy attitude with ghost hunting. November seemed a perfect time to read it. It could lead to some street cred on the bus.

It is difficult to distrust people like Taylor who write with absolutely no pretension (I’m a working-class kid, too). You know that what you’re getting is the real deal. It is also clear that like my brother and many rockers, Taylor is of above-average intelligence. Being smart can sometimes feel like a curse, and Taylor lashes out in several ways during the course of his narrative. He finds it odd to be an atheist who believes in, and has personally experienced, ghosts. I’m not sure that he would find it comforting to know that such a position is not at all as rare as he seems to think it is. Science deals with neither gods nor ghosts, and the average person is left to their own devices to decide who might speak with authority on such issues. Where are we supposed to look when scientists refuse to address such things? Personal experience is a powerful influence.

As with most books by opinionated, brash extroverts, it is difficult not to find yourself liking the writer. Trust may be too strong a word, but I do believe that Taylor writes without guile. After all, people have experienced ghosts for as long back as we’re aware. Why should it be any different for a celebrity? Is Taylor’s house haunted? (Or, more accurately are his houses haunted.) That’s a question no one can answer with certainty. Ghosts are beyond our realm of knowledge. Although plumbers can use scientific instruments, until actual scientists try to explain the immaterial we will be left to choose whom to believe. A metal singer can know just as much as a priest. Or even more, depending on the context.

Secular Family Values

Fear of social disruption runs deep. Things may not be perfect, but people would rather keep things the way they’re used to them being rather than to face radical change. This is natural enough. During the dark days of the Cold War, when nuclear annihilation constantly hung over our heads, atheism was a mark of the Soviet threat. “Godless communism.” Intellectually, however, a kind of atheism was already part of American society as well, although few people talked of it. With our national history of encouraging Bible reading and prayer in public schools, our self-presentation was of the faithful. Those who hold to “old time religion.” In fact, many had moved on, but those of us growing up in small towns or rural settings had no way of knowing that. Life before the internet was primitive in that way.

A recent Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times asks “How secular family values stack up.” In this age of Nones many are worried that the social fabric has already begun to unweave and that our ethical clothes have become threadbare and see-through. The statistics, however, don’t really bear that up. Written by Phil Zuckerman, it is no surprise that the piece takes a positive view of a faith-free value system. The fact is, the social disruption that has been widely hyped, especially by Neo-Con pundits, has simply not occurred because of secularism. As Zuckerman points out, the largely secular European society has handled ethical situations admirably well. Even in the United States, non-believers in jail populations are an astonishingly small demographic, and divorce rates run lower than those who report being more religious. Those who don’t believe tend to be more empathetic and to have closer family ties than many religious families do.

Tolerance of those with different outlooks is important. In a nation that was at one time considered a melting pot, such difference of opinion is only to be expected. In practical terms, people in the United States knew nothing of Buddhism or Hinduism until late in the nineteenth century. Other religions were simply outside of the experience of most. And those who lived in different religious traditions were also moral. Biologists who study the development of moral sentiments find that apes, certainly not religious by any standard, are often inclined toward positive social values (although clearly not always so—there are dangers in extremism). It is time that we overcame our distrust of those who, for whatever reason, cannot believe. Being human is sufficiently religious to make us concerned about our fellow person. It is only the drive and insatiable hunger, ironically, of godly capitalism that leads to unfeeling disregard of human need.

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Credo

One of my seminary professors, who shall remain nameless, averred in class that Christianity in the first centuries was popular because it was exclusive. Like a country club. If just anybody can get in, why would you want to join? I’ve come to disagree with said professor’s analysis, but I have to admit there are cases where the idea does apply. Country clubs, for example. Organizations that intend to improve society, however, have it in their best interest to have doors as wide open as possible. Otherwise it’s a kind of hypocrisy. If Christianity wanted to make a better world, it soon realized, all takers should be welcome. That paradigm broke down fairly quickly, but at the beginning, I have the sense that all were welcome. So I was pleased to hear that the Boy Scouts have dropped their ban on gay troop leaders. Making a group that sets out to do a good deed a day exclusive heterosexual seems awfully backward. After all, gay leaders are nothing new. Why try to be exclusive?

Of course, the Scouts continue to disallow atheists. This is a fairly common, if medieval, marker of personal integrity. The Elks, last I heard, had few entrance requirements. One of the few stipulations, however, is that you have to believe in God. I don’t know how that plays out for Hindu Elks. Perhaps the more the merrier. Somehow, I doubt it. Exclusive belief entry requirements are a way of weeding out questions before they’re raised. Sheltering those inside from baleful influence among hoi polloi. We are better because we are different. Granted, these organizations go back to a time when theism, of sorts, was virtually a given in American society. Times have changed. Boy Scouts, it seems, are dragged into the future kicking and screaming.

I’ve always been impressed, by contrast, with the Girl Scouts’ openness. No creedal requirements are in place. Atheist girls, Buddhist girls, girls who climb on rocks, any girls are allowed to join. The last three presidents (including Obama) have been Boy Scouts. Two prior presidents have been as well. You might think the organization could meet its pedigree requirements with ease. In my view, they might look to the girls to take a cue on how to make the world a better place. When I was growing up, I knew no atheists. I remember attending a funeral of a family friend who hadn’t been a church goer, and that was pretty traumatic. As an adult I know many atheists and I trust them as much, if not more than, some of the religious I know. Would they be able to lead Boy Scout troops well? I have a suggestion—why not ask the Girl Scouts and find out?

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