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.