Keep Your Hands To Yourself (Especially If They’re Praying…)

Over the past several days, I have seen at least two dozen friends and acquaintances on Facebook and Twitter post a link to this web comic from The Oatmeal entitled “How To Suck at Your Religion.” This comic, written by Oatmeal founder Matthew Inman, was re-posted several times by friends of mine who are atheists and agnostics and who frequently pepper my news feed with thoughtful critiques of religion, so I was eager to see what Inman had to say. While he obviously paints with some broad brushstrokes––I mean, it is a comic strip after all––I am in agreement with nearly all of the basic premises. I too would like to be a part of a religious community that is not in the business of hindering the advancement of scientific knowledge, giving people weird anxieties about their sexuality, or using the name of God to “kill, hurt, hinder, or condemn.” These are caricatures which the Church has undoubtedly brought upon itself through centuries of irresponsibly using its power. But in the final lines of the comic, he says

However, does your religion inspire you to help people? Does it make you happier? Does it help you cope with the fact that you are a bag of meat sitting on a rock in outer space that someday you will DIE and you are completely powerless, helpless, and insignificant in the wake of this beautiful cosmic shitstorm we call existence? Does it help with that? Yes? Excellent! Carry on with your religion! Just keep it to your fucking self.

In addition to having a laughably narrow view of religion (1)––as some sort of existentially comforting teddy bear to which people cling in blind defiance of life’s obvious meaninglessness––I feel that Inman makes the crucial error to which so many contemporary secularists fall prey when attempting to offer a “way forward” after their critique. They are fine with allowing the narcissistic fantasy of religion to perpetuate itself, as long as its practitioners are willing to recognize it as such. This is the logic of liberal toleration: you are free to live in any number of insane or impractical ways, as long as you keep your hands to yourself. But in addition to its patron saints like John Locke and Adam Smith, Western liberalism has a few religious skeletons in its closet.

I, for one, am glad that folks like William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King Jr., and Dorothy Day were unable (and unwilling) to keep their religion to themselves, and I would assume that the improvements they offered to the liberal establishment in the West are ones that Inman and others would like to maintain. Here, I feel that the secular left might fall into the same rhetorical trap that plagues so many Tea Partiers in the United States. Just as the solution to bad government is not no government, the solution to bad religion is not no religion, but better religion (2). So for all of the injustice and hatred perpetrated in the name of God(s) around the world, religions must prayerfully and humbly repent. But the solution is not to naively abandon religion, it is to remain faithful the prophetic vision of justice, peace, and love that only religion can offer.


(1) The sort of blatant “scientism”––unwillingness to recognize that scientific discourse can be just as irrational and ideologically driven as any other––in an argument such as this one has been so well diagnosed in the half-century since Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that I don’t feel the need expound on it here. If you’re interested in the topic, I’d highly recommend Terry Eagleton’s masterful arguments against the new atheists in Reason, Faith, and Revolution.

(2) Parenthetically, I would like to suggest that it is precisely the type of individualism encouraged by Inman and others that breeds this “bad religion” in the first place.

Joshua Busman :
Joshua Busman is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in musicology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He holds a BM in music theory and composition from Middle Tennessee State University as well as an MA in musicology from UNC. His current research deals with music in religious communities (specifically in evangelicalism), music and politics in the twentieth century, musical postmodernism, and critical theory. Alongside his academic interests, Joshua works with Durham CAN, a multi-racial, multi-faith, grassroots political organization in Durham County. When he isn’t reading or writing, Joshua enjoys hanging out with his wonderful wife and hound dog at their home in the Bull City.
  • Ed Mitchell

    Superb argument and explaining. Thank you

  • Exal Visam

    “But the solution is not to naively abandon religion, it is to remain faithful the prophetic vision of justice, peace, and love that only religion can offer.”

    You overstepped your argument here. I am a peaceful person, a just person, and a loving person; yet I am an atheist. I dream of a world where there is more love, justice, and peace in the world; yet I am an atheist. I work to create love, justice and peace in the world; I spend my time and money bringing about these things; yet I am an atheist.

    I don’t need a religion to be just, loving, or peaceful, and you are incorrect when you state otherwise.

    • Joshua Busman

      Thank you for your comment. I was not trying to suggest that one cannot be loving, peaceful or just without believing in God, but rather suggesting that eliminating God from the equation (or at least restricting it to the space between people’s ears) is NOT a very good way to bring about a more just, loving, or peaceful world. The comic seems to suggest that if people would simply keep their faith commitments to themselves, then the world could be rid of the scourge of “religion.” But an argument such as this ignores the “religious” commitments that are necessary to underpin the entire liberal project of democracy, science, and human rights. My hope is that people of all possible (non)faith orientations can work together towards peace, love, and justice without having to hide their “religious” particularity.

  • Martin Elfert

    A marvellous and succinct reflection, thank you Joshua. I would expand your argument only to say this: the human being is incapable of keeping to herself those things in which she finds beauty, passion, meaning, and so forth. As an artist, Matthew Inman surely knows as much: it would be absurd, if not cruel, to tell him to keep creating his comic – but to keep it to himself.

  • theamishjihadist

    Just to play the devil’s advocate, because, you know . . . it’s fun (and I like to imagine how other people could approach this topic): I think Inman (as well as, perhaps, yourself) is quite the idealist about what it means to be a faithful practitioner of religion. Perhaps if you’re willing to kill (or, hurt, hinder, condemn) for your religion then it means you’re GOOD at your religion. Abraham was certainly willing to kill for his fidelity toward God (hence Luther’s defining of religion as ‘whatever you’re willing to sacrifice your children for is your religion/god) and he’s the ‘Father’ of three major ‘world religions’ (horrible descriptions, aren’t they?), therefore you may not be a faithful adherent to your religion if you’re NOT willing to kill for it (and, yes, I am a Mennonite–remember, I’m being an ally of Old Horny here).

    David, Joshua, Moses, YHWH all get their killing on and they all, along with Jesus, get their ‘condemning’ on in rather mad fashion (thanks, Jesus, for those lovely descriptions of hell). So, while I love the talk of the prophetic vision of Christianity, I’m also well aware of how many people may come away with a different vision. Therefore, the idea of a ‘better’ religion may not be the best solution as you’re simply assuming that what it means to have a better religion is one that matches your interpretation of what religion should be in the first place–meaning, at the end of the day, you, like everyone else, becomes the sole arbiter of the meaning of your own religion. And there is certainly much biblical warrant (in Judaism, Christianity and Islam) for a ‘better’ religion to mean more killing, more hurting and more condemning. (Can’t stop reading Joshua . . . or Revelation.)

    All right, diablos out.

    (And yes, Eagleton’s book is stellar, along with Hart’s on the subject.)

    • Joshua Busman

      Thanks so much for your excellent question. I’ve always enjoyed the work you post here at TOJ and I’m grateful that you took the time to come over to Mediation and engage with me.

      You raise an excellent point w/r/t the role of violence in the “better” practice of religion I advocate at the end of the piece. Obviously, I cannot speak for those religious communities of which I am not a part, but as a Christian and someone who comes from a Yoderian (not sure if that’s a word) neo-Mennonite community, I would point to the practice of “binding and loosing” as a justification for equating “better” with “less violent.”

      Since “binding and loosing,” as described by Jesus in Matthew 18 and elaborated by Yoder in “Body Politics”, is the practice through which the Holy Spirit’s discernment is enacted within the community AND since it is a practice of non-violent conflict resolution, I see this as the inscription of non-violence not merely at the level of ethics (which would be a relatively easy argument to mount, as you know) but at the level of meta-ethics. In order to function as a community of the Holy Spirit, we must be willing to resolve our conflicts both within and without the community in this spirit of non-violence. Therefore, non-violence is not merely a rule within the ethical system of Christianity, but is rather a precondition for the discernment of ethics as such.

      This is just a first thought on the subject and it is definitely a topic that deserves further reflection, but I hope this helps.

      • theamishjihadist

        Totally off-subject, but isn’t Chapel Hill a great town? I was just there last week–eating cupcakes at Sugarland. Delicious.

        • Joshua Busman

          It really is. I especially love that the three music buildings are right next to Franklin St. It means that many post-seminar trips to Sugarland ensue!

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