Tag Archives: faith

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: A Touch of Healing

This episode takes place during a period where Whit was off in the Middle East, being a missionary adventurer archaeologist (no, I’m not making that up), and Whit’s End was run by his son Jason and his old friend Jack. This was actually a pretty good time. See, they couldn’t bring in a new character who would usurp Whit’s status as most perfectest human being, and instead they replaced him with two guys with good hearts and human flaws. Jason is proactive and inventive, eager to adapt new technology and trends to engage the kids at Whit’s End but often too hasty. Jack is more cautious and old fashioned. He needs Jason’s energy to keep up with the times, but he can also see where Jason is rushing in without considering all the potential drawbacks. As a result, formulaic answers delivered by a Mary Sue were replaced with actual debate and compromise, and room for the audience to think longer about an issue before deciding who they agreed with. It not only made the morals less trite, but also tended to force the episode quality up.

In this episode, Jason has developed a new program for the Imagination Station. I don’t think I’ve mentioned it before, which is astounding because it is a major part of the AIO canon; in brief, it puts kids into a world where they act out a story, programmed in by Whit or Jason, but brought to life “by the power of imagination.” It does actually seem to penetrate the mind directly, rather than just being a glorified virtual reality machine, which has some freaky ass implications. But I’ll have more opportunities to get into this later.

For now, Jason has realized that, since disabled kids can imagine they don’t have disabilities, he can program the Imagination Station to put them through an adventure, completely able bodied. Jack felt like there could be problems with this, but couldn’t offer anything beyond a vague bad feeling, and Jason more or less took that as a challenge. He went straight from idea to implementation to trying the program out on some Whit’s End regulars.

His first test case, Jenny, does not go as planned. Jenny was born blind. She can’t accurately imagine being sighted, and as she talks about it upon leaving the Imagination Station, it seems that she also doesn’t really see her blindness as a fault. It’s just a part of her, and she has a good life just the way she is. The second one, with Zachary, who became quadriplegic in a car accident, goes much better. He walks and runs, and what’s more, sees this as absolute heaven. This is, by the way, the same Zachary from Letting Go, but earlier. He was still adjusting in that episode, but here he’s positively raw from the double shock of losing his father and becoming disabled. As soon as he is pulled out of the program he becomes enraged and demands to be sent back. His mother, Eileen, who was not informed about what Jason was about to do, is furious. Jack takes Eileen’s side, but Jason can only think about how happy Zachary was during the program, and can’t understand their problem.

Meanwhile, Connie and her Mom are welcoming Connie’s paternal grandmother, Mildred into their home for the foreseeable future. Connie’s father, as you may recall, is largely absentee, and Mildred is dealing with some ongoing heart problems. It says a lot about Connie’s family life that she’s the one unanimously chosen as the best suited to take care of her grandmother. Mildred is sweet, warm and utterly delightful. Unfortunately, during her visit, her health takes a sudden and dramatic turn for the worst. She is admitted to the hospital, and when Connie visits, the two of them spend much of their time in prayer.

The next day, Jason finds out from Eileen that Zachary was a wreck after the Imagination Station. He threw tantrums and, when he finally went to bed, she found him crying in his sleep. He has also been refusing to go to physical therapy. PT apparently has the potential to help him, but it’s a slow, frustrating process for a kid who is already emotionally scarred. Zachary says that there’s no point anymore, since he can just go into the Imagination Station and walk like he could before. Eileen asks how Zachary is supposed to cope with reality when Jason has created a perfect fantasy for him to escape to. Jason, still wanting to defend his invention, thinks that maybe later on, Zachary’s experiences in the Imagination Station can help him be more motivated to go through therapy. Jack takes him aside and tries to show him how he’s undermining an already stressed out parent. He argues that it’s always been a policy of Whit’s End to never contradict parents when it comes to their kids. Jason doesn’t like that policy. I don’t either, but in this instance I’ve gotta take Jack’s side. He’s started messing around with Zachary’s healing process without even consulting his mother, and that’s seriously unacceptable.

The episode then cuts to Connie and Mildred in the hospital. By now, Mildred knows her own body pretty well, and she wants no more hopeful double talk from the doctors. She lists the problems, the transplants she would need to survive and her slim odds of getting them, and sums up her condition as terminal. The doctors are stunned, but admit she’s right. Mildred thanks them for their honesty, and Connie asks her why they have been praying if there’s no realistic hope.

Instead of saying they are praying for a miracle, Mildred says that the prayers aren’t for herself, but for Connie; for her to have strength, whatever happens next. A short time later, she slips into a coma.

Over the next several days, while Connie works to prepare herself for the worst, Whit’s End is mobbed by disabled kids. Jason sees that Zachary’s not alone in his reaction. These kids have a brief experience of cheap release, but they leave either angry, because they have to return to a reality that now feels doubly unfair, or disappointed, because like Jenny they lack the experiences that let the program work on them. For those who can use the program, they mostly went through the same kind of pain Zachary did. The Imagination Station makes them go from a world where they’re struggling to learn how to be different, to a world where everything is as it was before, and then are thrust back into the real world, with no coping mechanisms, no tools to adapt to the transition. He hasn’t invented a way to heal them, but a way to torture them. He suspends the program indefinitely, until he can figure out a way to make it genuinely work for the kids, and apologizes publicly for the damage he has done.

Jack goes to visit Connie and Zachary. The conversations he has with both of them are about turning to God for emotional healing, even when the physical healing we hope for doesn’t come. These talks are both very different from the ones Whit gives. Jack spends a lot more time listening. There’s no railroading them into a predetermined point, so you get the sense that he doesn’t come in with an agenda. He hears what the other person says, gives his honest response, and then listens to see what they made of it. You know, like an actual conversation. With Connie, they meander through faith, prayer, sin, pain and the afterlife. She doesn’t emerge with any new answers, but she feels heard and loved in a way she didn’t get in the previous review. With Zachary, there’s a “let me tell you about Jesus” talk, but it comes up naturally as a result of Jack sharing his philosophy on spiritual healing, and Zachary asking to hear more.

In the end, Eileen and Zachary both are converted. Mildred dies, but Connie finds comfort in her belief that they will see each other again in heaven.

It is clearly indicated that the official message is that God is a more powerful force for healing, particularly mental and spiritual healing, than medicine and technology. I don’t agree with that basic premise, in partly because I think the latter exist and the former don’t, and also because my experiences with mental health have shown the opposite. Religion tended to exacerbate the problem, modern medicine had very good results for me. At the same time, this topic is handled with unusual nuance in this episode, and that does make it better.

In this episode, characters who disagree with the official moral aren’t strawmen. They have reasons and are given the space to fully explain them, so even though they end up proved wrong, you can still think about circumstances under which they might have been right. If Jason had collaborated with physical therapists and parents, for example, he might have set up a more helpful program; perhaps one where it’s a reward for therapy, to make the results more tangible.

The other thing that works well here is that there’s something organic about how faith is used. Connie, Mildred and Jenny have a long personal history of faith, so it makes sense that they turn to it. As for the conversion, while I don’t like what Jack says (he calls people who don’t believe in Jesus “spiritually handicapped”) I do think he has a right to share his faith with those who are interested, and Eileen and Zachary don’t feel forced into an out of character religious experience for the sake of the story.

Science has brought us a long way, but there are many things they can only alleviate, or haven’t been able to solve at all. The history of science is also full of therapies that were tried and did not work, or have the potential to be applied in both helpful and abusive ways (think electroshock therapy or lobotomies). While meds have made a significant difference in my life, and therapy can help many others, for other people religion is genuinely a source of emotional healing, and that’s great. When it comes to mental health, I’m happy for anyone who finds something that works for them.

Of course, this episode avoids a big potential problem by only portraying characters who are happy to turn to Christianity for healing. I’ve already talked some about ways that religion can be counterproductive for people with mental health problems. In the next review, Connie’s father shows up for Mildred’s funeral, and we get to look at how AIO treats characters who are hurting, and unwilling to convert.

Final ratings

Best Part: Jack comforting Connie. It was so genuinely warm, and after Fences I was really ready for her to get talked to like a human being and not a troublesome project.

Worst Part: They keep referencing an earlier episode where Jason tried to invent an arcade game that taught kids about the Bible, and Jack was so shocked because, you know, video games. That episode, to AIO’s credit, did not force Jason to realize video games were evil; only that they were loud and needed to be put in a soundproof room so they don’t disrupt the rest of the shop. The writers almost seem to feel guilty about making that compromise, because now Jack keeps saying that they can’t be healthy, what with all the lights and noise and punching buttons.

Literally, he complains about the kids punching buttons. The whole time, I’m thinking, “you hear that your childhood BFF invented something that literally induces hallucinations in minors and you’re fine with this, but video games are bad because buttons???”

It was a minor point that didn’t detract too much from the overall episode, but it was still annoying.

Story Rating: The dialog was natural, and the conflicts progressed very naturally. At no point did the story feel like it was relying on contrivances or manipulation to make it’s point. I got genuinely invested in all the characters and how things were going to turn out. A

Moral Rating: I think the basic point is problematic, but of all the takes on this idea, they took the best one. C +

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Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Agnostic-Atheist; By Faith, Noah

There are a number of AIO episodes that I frankly want to skip, because they are neither offensive enough to rant about nor good enough to earn compliments. Many of the straightforward adaptations of Biblical stories fall into this category. I really thought this would be one, because all I remembered about it was that Whit tells Jack and Lucy (two recurring children) the story of Noah. Oh, and there was some other story he opened with, that we only hear the end of. How did that go again?

“The fire blazed through the house, pushing little Billy to his bedroom window on the second floor. He looked down and saw his parents, who had been frantically trying to find him.”

Oh right. It’s about a small child literally burning to death because he doesn’t have enough “faith” to jump into his fathers arms, thereby proving that faith is really important.

Jack and Lucy point out how Billy at least had the advantage of being sure his father exists. Lucy talks about being teased at school for putting her faith in something she can’t even see. Well, Whit has the solution to that; the story of Noah. He’s going to assuage her worries about belief in someone she can’t see by telling her about a faith-having person who she also can’t see. That’s not convoluted at all.

It’s honestly unclear what he’s supposed to be teaching them. Yes, he’s teaching them “about faith” but they accept his stories so readily that lack of faith clearly isn’t the issue. Lucy is worried about teasing, but he isn’t offering her practical solutions so much as reinforcing that faith is a good thing. But this reassurance wouldn’t work if they didn’t already have the very faith he’s trying to teach them.

So the lesson here isn’t actually a lesson, so much as an exercise in confirmation bias. A good deal of Adventures in Odyssey can be explained by that, actually.

Back to the review. Whit can’t just tell Jack and Lucy the story right where they are. They might not have enough material to fill the whole twenty minutes of this radio drama! So he takes them up to the Bible room. It’s an exciting room full of Biblical activities, like… Biblical dioramas. Also you can recite Bible verses into a mirror. If you say the text correctly, it will give you the chapter and verse, and vice versa. Fun! This is what fun is like!

Anyway, Lucy and Jack gush, in a way that is totally normal-sounding and not brainwashed cult-y at all, about how cool the Bible room is and how excited they are for another story because Whit is such a great storyteller.

Whit starts the story of Noah where everyone starts it; by emphasizing that everybody, absolutely everybody, was incredibly evil. We’ve got an apocalypse to justify here. Being a fabulous storyteller, he establishes this with no supporting details or examples, but simply an assertion that God was really pissed off with them. Because the Biblical Old Testament God would never get tetchy about something we would consider innocuous, like shellfish, or cloth made of textile blends.

Noah found favor with God, and had a “walked and talked” relationship with him. Of course, that walked and talked is totally metaphorical, because then it would undercut the whole point of this story, right? I mean, Whit is trying to comfort a couple kids who are being bullied for believing in something they can’t see. He’s not going to illustrate the importance of faith without evidence by talking about someone who had a standing dinner date with God, right? Of course not. That would make no fucking sense.

Anyway, Noah metaphorically walks and talks with a God and gets detailed metaphorical instructions on this whole flood thing. Didn’t have any direct experiences of God that he could treat as evidence of his faith, but somehow got perfectly clear and comprehensible directions from him. Got it? Good.

Whit, storyteller extraordinaire, finally gets to the showing part of the story. He paints a vivid picture of Noah’s dinner with his wife, in which they are conflicted between the great honor of this task and the fear of what is to come.

Oh, sorry, I meant they talk react with the flippancy of a couple who has been volun-told to organize the PTA bake sale. And with painfully stereotypical New York Jew accents.

Whit says it took a hundred and twenty years to build the ark. Jack and Lucy gush for a while over the faith of this man, who got a blueprint from a guy he sees semi-regularly worked for someone who he had never seen. They are also impressed by his preparation for something that hasn’t happened yet, which… isn’t all preparation for something that hasn’t happened yet?

Then Whit talks about how Noah no doubt got teased for his beliefs too. Horrible persecution, like;

  1. People not taking his word on this whole repent-or-be-drowned thing.
  2. People finding this threat of imminent drowning a bit dickish and coercive.
  3. Being cited by health inspectors and animal rights activists for keeping animals on his place without proper facilities.
  4. Criticism from the boat-builders union.
  5. Police claiming he’s… double parked. I don’t know how that even works. I mean, there’s just the one ark. And it’s always portrayed as just hanging out on a hilltop, where there aren’t any other boats, just waiting for the flood waters to rise… You don’t build boats right there in the water, guys.

So yeah, damn these liberals and their regulations. Inconveniencing someone’s right to do whatever the fuck they want to is the worst evil we can think of! It’s exactly this kind of evil mayhem that gets the planet flooded.

Well, from here, you know the drill. Lots of water. Everyone dies. The ark floats, despite being built by non-union members. The waters subside after a while and Noah releases some birds to make sure everything’s safe. They still haven’t run out the clock quite enough, so everyone gushes about how much faith Noah had in someone he never-

okay, for fucks sake, enough of this! He “walked and talked” with God. You’ll insist we can’t teach evolution because the creation story has to be literal, but “walked with God” gets to be a metaphor because if Noah has actually seen God then his faith gets way less impressive.

Fuuuuuuck you.

Final ratings

Best bit: Feel free to call me biased, but I liked the parody liberals accidentally making good points.

Worst bit: Tough call, but I’m gonna go with the terrifying and manipulative opening story. Honorable mentions to the utter blandness of the Bible Room and the concept of a double-parked ark.

Story: A bit derivative of Utnapishtim, with a cloying frame device. D

Moral: “Faith always pays off, take my word for it!” F

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Agnostic; A Matter of Obedience

 

This episode centers around Tom Reilly, a longtime friend of Whit’s. Tom is every old timey stereotype in the book; the positive ones, that is. From the perspective of the Adventures in Odyssey team, old fashioned and traditional is automatically better. For example, the Bible School class Tom has been ask to substitute teach, though inherently Biblical and therefore wonderful, has been tainted by the teacher’s newfangled ways. As Reynold the teacher’s pet explains;

“We learned that the word obedience as it appears in the New Testament is translated from the Greek word hupakoe, meaning to give fulfillment of God’s claims and commands, and hupatage, which means to bring under subjection.”

“Anything else?”

“It took us the whole class to learn about hupakoe, Mr. Reilly.”

How? You defined both words in one sentence.

I’ve been in plenty of Sunday School classes (and regular classes) where the teachers touched on the Greek, Hebrew and Latin root words. It never took up a whole class, in fact never more than a minute. If it did, it was because the root words were genuinely interesting and enlightening.

I also find this an ironic criticism. This series never stops praising the Bible, and emphasizing the importance of studying it, but God forbid you learn the copy in your own home is just a translation. God forbid you learn anything about the original language, and the subtleties that may have been lost. Tom rants for a while about this Bible School where they don’t read the Bible, never mind that, in a sense, that’s exactly what they were doing. He realizes that the duty of truly teaching them about obedience has fallen to him, and decides to tell them a story.

Not a story from the Bible, mind you. Just something that happened to him as a kid. You know, REAL Bible study stuff.

Tom’s father was a country doctor during the Great Depression. One day he asked Tom and his sister Becky to deliver some medicine, while he went to see another patient. Before he left, he gave Tom a list of instructions.

  1. Take the Single Path through the Gloomy Woods. It’s long and windy, but it’s a direct route, so they won’t get lost.
  2. Take a knapsack of food, because the trip will take most of the day and they will be hungry.
  3. Don’t play around. This means you, Tom. You can’t afford to waste time goofing off.
  4. Don’t talk to strangers on the way.
  5. Knock on the house with the blue door, and tell the man there who you are. Don’t knock on any other doors, because the people in that area don’t trust strangers.

He also advises his son to take a pocketknife, on the general principle that every story needs a Chekhov’s Gun. Becky also brings a book, because this good old-fashioned story wouldn’t be complete without Tom making fun of people who read for fun she doesn’t want to get bored.

Naturally, Tom goofs off on a bridge over a stream and promptly loses the knapsack, and they spend the bulk of the trip suffering hunger pangs. He nearly breaks rules four and one, when a stranger approaches and offers to show them a shortcut and food, but Becky talks him out of it. When they finally emerge, Tom is so desperate for this whole ordeal to be over, he runs up to the first house he sees and knocks on a red door.

Becky points out how red is an extremely un-blue color, but Tom brushes her off on account of… reasons?

Of course the woman who opens the door assumes they are evil pranksters who must be locked up in her basement while she goes for help. Naturally.

Luckily, she leaves the key in the door. Tom joyfully announces that Becky’s book will finally be useful for something. He tears out a page, pushes it under the door, knocks the key out with the pocketknife, pulls it under the door and unlocks it from the other side.

They finally follow their father’s directions to the letter, complete their mission and get some food. And if the story had stopped there, I honestly would have thought it was fine. A bit obvious and trope heavy, yes. But overall, a standard children’s morality tale. Unfortunately, this being Adventures in Odyssey, we can’t just stop there. We have to have the moral explained to death, to make absolutely sure we don’t engage in any independent thought.

As Tom says to his class;

“That little adventure taught me how important it is to obey. Even when it’s not convenient or when I don’t understand why I’m being told to do something, and even when I don’t want to. I tried to make excuses and argue, and I was wrong, and suffered because of it.”

As Tom talks, he puts the emphasis on “why,” even though that does not apply to the story. Each rule came with a clear explanation from his father, and he disobeyed it anyway. He goes on like this for a while, to make it clear that obeying is always, always good and disobeying is always, always bad. If we learned “obey people who give directions that make sense and are for the good of everyone involved,” we learned the wrong lesson. We should have learned unquestioning obedience.

Obedience, I think, is an act of trust. It is only virtuous if we are trusting those who have earned it. Sometimes they earn that by giving us clear reasoning. Other times we choose to trust someone because of their track record. And yes, some people start out in an authority role, like a teacher, parent or boss, and it’s worthwhile to trust that they got that position for good reasons. There’s a difference between that and blindly following someone who gives directions that are damaging and foolish.

I don’t trust leaders who try to argue obedience is something we all automatically owe them. It tells me they know the foundation of their authority is weak.

Final ratings (because I’ve decided that should be a thing)

Best bit: Every named character follows a Tom Sawyer theme. It’s moderately funny when you notice it.

Worst bit: Anti-intellectualism – fun for the whole family!

Story: It’s hardly a masterpiece, but it’s not bad. B –

Moral: Once again, they skirt close to a good message, but explain it to death and add problematic elements in the process. D

Watching Dogma With a Nun

A few weeks ago, I wrote a review of the movie Dogma, an old favorite of mine. At the end of it, I promised to write something about my journey figuring out how to follow advice from a certain character; advice to try having ideas, instead of beliefs, because an idea you can always change if you need to. I also hinted that it would have something to do with my experience watching this with my friend RJ, who is in the process of becoming an Episcopalian nun. This post ended up being harder to write than I expected, because the conversation RJ and I had about the movie quickly became very personal.

What RJ and I ended up talking about (other than squeeing over all our favorite bits) was theodicy, and the question of how atheism answers the meaning of life. These, in my opinion, are two of the most difficult questions in all of religion, because they can’t escape being incredibly personal. I can put my meaning of life in the most beautiful prose, and I have, and I can’t make that feel meaningful to someone else. In turn, I can hear explanations for evil that I can intellectually acknowledge are at least internally consistent, but I can’t find any of them satisfying. One of the things I appreciated about the conversation with RJ was how she admitted that she’s still figuring things out, and that the answers she has work for her, but she doesn’t expect them to convince anyone else.

I’ve been involved in a number of discussions about faith, evidence and belief, and it seems the one point that is consistently overlooked, by religious and non-religious people alike, is the influence of community. Not just the influence of community on what we believe, but on what we don’t want to change our minds about. I remember vividly from my Christian days how much that affected me. There was fear of ostracism, but even more than that, there was fear that if I stopped believing, I wouldn’t know who I was anymore. From birth, I had been raised to make religion an integral part of my identity, and how I saw the world. It was difficult to leave religion, even when it completely failed to make sense to me, because it would mean leaving behind my entire sense of what the world was and where I fit into it.

When I ventured out, in search of a new worldview, I found myself both drawn to and afraid of communities that were similarly agreement-centric. I was used to relating to people by believing the same things they did, and defining myself that way as well. At the same time, I was evolving very rapidly, and every time I bonded with someone over shared ideas, I felt like I was glimpsing a future where I was rejected for someday having a new idea. I’ve now started to realize certain things (like people being quick to insult those who disagree with them, or trying to bond with me over ideas instead of actions) as anxiety triggers.

After a few years of drifting through social circles and philosophies, I met RJ. One of the things I noticed early on was that she talked about other people she liked by listing their faults, not as insults, but as endearing quirks. This made me finally relax around someone. Perhaps without realizing it, she was saying, “be different from me, be irritating, show me your worst side, and I’ll still like you.” I try to be open with people as much as possible, but that still comes with a certain degree of anxiety most of the time. RJ is one of the few people who I can be as open as I want to be without any anxiety.

The other reason I had trouble writing this post is that I felt it would in some way become an advice post. I didn’t think I could tell about my journey away from beliefs and towards ideas without giving some pointers to people on that same journey. So here’s the only thing I know; find people who you know will care for you even if you change your mind. It takes a while, but it’s worth it.

Watching Dogma When I Doubted

When I first watched this movie, I was a bit disappointed. On each subsequent viewing, however, I’ve enjoyed it more, and now its one of my favorite comedies.

At the time, I was right at that in between space, between belief and disbelief. I had grown up with a religion full of answers. This is why bad things happen. This is how forgiveness works. This is how we know God is real. I had been assured so many times that if my faith was tested, it would always be found true, and so I had plunged into testing it, researching and arguing with unbelievers in hopes that I could save their souls. Instead, I found that the simple, tidy answers I had been given were not so satisfying. They held up well to the straw men portrayed in my childhood literature, but real humans had more complex, thought out ideas, more probing questions. I didn’t know what to believe.

So when I watched this movie, I hoped I would find those answers. Instead, I found something better. I found permission to not have answers.

I’m not going to try to recreate the experience of this movie, because I think jokes are extremely vulnerable to spoilers. I’d hate to ruin the humor for someone who hasn’t seen it, so I’ll just briefly summarize the plot. A pair of fallen angels find a way back to heaven, but unfortunately a side effect of their plan is obliteration of all existence. God is mysteriously MIA, so Metatron (the angelic voice of God) resorts to the oldest, most reliable plan in the book; assemble a ragtag team of unlikely misfits. The protagonist is Bethany, a Catholic who still goes to church, but has essentially lost her faith. She is helped by Jay and Silent Bob, a muse named Serendipity, and Rufus, the previously unknown black apostle.

Metatron
Metatron is Alan Rickman, which in and of itself is reason enough to watch this film.

When I most recently rewatched it, I expected to be frustrated by the fact that it teases you with doubt and complexity but ultimately concludes that God is still the bestest ever, but I actually don’t think it’s that simple. God does cause suffering, or at least allows it to happen, and nobody says you have to worship her. Her characterization allowed for a number of interpretations, and I decided mine was that she is a being of power who sustains the rest of the world by her infallible assertion that it exists, but she herself is a flawed and evolving person, just like the rest of us.

God
Oh yeah, and God is played by Alanis Morissette

I said its one of my favorite comedies, but it would be more accurate to say its one of my favorite films that happens to be in the comedy genre. I think some of the jokes are great and others just aren’t my preferred style of comedy. What I appreciate most about Dogma up is the empathetic attitude towards those in a place of doubt. There isn’t really a genre of atheist movies out there, so when you see discussions of religion onscreen they are invariably from a religious perspective. This means that those who doubt, or who have been wounded by their religion, are typically treated very callously. They are given pat answers and regarded as imbeciles for not having thought of them before. The opposite happens in Dogma. Bethany talks about her struggles, and people listen sympathetically. Metatron not only doesn’t have answers for her, but feels bad that he doesn’t. Rufus and Serendipity, who both have actually met Jesus and God respectively, claim that the former was black and the latter is a woman. But they also accept that nobody gets everything right, and argue that trying to understand everything is pointless. Ultimately, Bethany’s character arc isn’t meant to restore her faith. The closest the film comes to a “state the theme” moment is the following exchange about Jesus.

Rufus: He still digs humanity, but it bothers Him to see the shit that gets carried out in His name – wars, bigotry, televangelism. But especially the factioning of all the religions. He said humanity took a good idea and, like always, built a belief structure on it.

Bethany: Having beliefs isn’t good?

Rufus: I think it’s better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier…

This line about ideas came back to my mind, over and over, as I struggled with my faith, and it was a source of comfort greater than any aphorism or Bible verse I had heard. It ultimately lead me to skepticism and atheism, but I’ve found that even there it can be complicated advice to truly follow.

But that’s another topic, for an upcoming review where I watch this movie with a nun. Stay tuned, let me know your thoughts and, as always, thanks for reading.

Reviewing Veggie Tales as an Atheist; Josh and the Big Wall, Part 2

Part One here.

One of my favorite philosophical questions is the Euthyphro dilemma. Its from a story, told by Plato. Socrates asks a man named Euthyphro what is moral, and Euthyphro declares that morality is what is loved by the gods. Socrates responds by asking whether they love morality because it is moral, or whether it is moral because they love it. Either way feels like a trap. If the first one is true, it erodes the moral authority of the gods. It suggests there is some higher standard that they must bow to, and makes Euthyphro’s first answer incomplete. The second one, however, seems even worse. If morality is only good because God happens to prefer it, there could easily be alternate worlds where God decrees rape and theft and murder moral. Christians apologists often bemoan the moral subjectivism that they think would inevitably follow an atheist’s perspective, but the compare “genocide is okay when God says it is” to any brand of secular humanism, and see which one sounds more subjective. To me, letting morality depend on God’s say-so is just making it subjective from his perspective, and removing our ability to question his subjective whims. At least with human moral subjectivity, I can question nihilists and the like. I can still reject their morality, and if my empathy driven sense of right has no objective grounds, theirs is no more so.

Christian philosophers often solve this dilemma by stating that God is synonymous with morality, that he is the higher moral standard from which all goodness emanates. This is a logical solution, but when combined with the Old Testament God you end up with some tricky questions. Was it really moral to condone rape and genocide? There are multiple solutions, including believing there was something special about those circumstances, rejecting Biblical infallibility, or simply accepting that its a question humans might not have an answer to, and for the purpose of this post I don’t really care which one you believe in, with one exception. Those who believe that their religion gives them a right to dictate my actions, that its imperative to outlaw homosexuality, to censor books I read and write, to forbid me from living a psychologically stable life as my preferred gender, they tend to believe that morality is whatever God says it is, that he is never wrong, that he has never changed his mind and that the Bible is infallible. In essence, they pick the second prong of the Eurythpro dilemma. They say, whatever God declares moral is moral, no matter how wrong it seems to us, and you must never question him.

That is why I am tackling this message. I do not think it is benign. It is, on the contrary, the root of all conflict between fundamentalist religion and the rest of us. I do not think its okay to decide that on one day genocide was okay for no better reason than “God told us to.” I think we need to cultivate our own moral judgment, and question that order. I’m not that picky about where that questioning leads you. You get to make up your own mind, as I sure don’t have all the answers for you. Both of us, using our best judgments, will each still be wrong about some things, and that’s okay. I just care that you don’t let the claim of authority trump your judgment.

I really want to do these reviews in a way that is fair. I don’t want to be one of those vitriolic reviewers who looks for things to criticize, for the sake of stirring up controversy or having something to say. When I think something is good, I call it good, and when I have conflicted feelings, I spell out the conflict for you rather than pick a side. There are many reasons for this, but not least is this; when I come to a story like this, and I get ranty over a beloved children’s story, it will be clear that I am not doing this out of some vendetta against the Bible. I am disturbed by this story, and the more I think about it, the more disturbed I am. As a child, I was told a story of genocide, but it was sanitized beyond all recognition. As I grew older, piece by piece of the real story was given to me, so gradually that as I transformed this innocent story of slushie fights and irate French peas into one of blood and terror, the gory truth still had, to me, an air of innocence and moral clarity. The invaders were the good guys. The oppressors were righteous, the God who commanded this slaughter just and benevolent, and the victims faceless and nameless.

Reviewing Veggie Tales as an Atheist; Josh and the Big Wall, Part 1

This episode  opens with a letter from a kid who was told not to beat people up, which he thinks sucks, because sometimes other people are mean and he just wants to give them a pounding. Scary kid. Larry and Bob turn this into a lesson on why its important to follow God’s directions even when you don’t want to. That way this kid will understand that no matter how much he wants to punch people in the face, he shouldn’t, because God doesn’t condone violence.

So they tell the story of the destruction of Jericho, where God commands the Israelites destroy an entire city and slaughter its inhabitants.

Interesting choice, but okay.

Now, understand, when I say slaughter, I don’t even mean a slaughter by ancient barbaric Biblical times. Back then, at least there was a decent probability of women and children being spared. The elderly and sick might not be killed. Even some fighting men might be taken as slaves. This isn’t good, but it’s a non-death alternative. Not so with the Israelite conquest of Israel. Because God doesn’t want his chosen people contaminated with other religions, they are commanded to kill everyone. Joshua 6:21, NIV; “They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it – men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.” One family is spared; that of Rahab the prostitute. See, she heard some stories about God that freaked her out, and she said, “hey, if I help your spies out, can I not die?” And lo, they said, “sure, I guess, why not?”

Okay, I had issues with this episode. Its not that its a bad episode. Like most Veggie Tales fare, its witty, goofy, well paced and full of catchy songs. It also happens to be focused on the moral that, more than any other, gives me issues with my Christian upbringing. The episode explicitly tells us, from the opening scene to the end and all through the middle, that we must always follow God’s directions, no matter how scary, unpleasant, or hard to understand.

It also bowdlerizes the crap out of the whole genocide part of the story, which means one of two things. The first is that the creators thought about how if small children like me heard that God commanded the slaughter of so many, we might question whether he was the good God they were marketing to us, and not believe in him. The second is that they themselves never thought of the people who the Israelites slaughtered as actual human beings. They never bothered to consider the story from their point of view. I do not know which explanation bothers me more.

You know, there’s too much ranting to do on this piece. I’m just going to get through the rest of the episode, and save part two to get into the complexities of the Euthyphro dilemma.

So anyway, the story opens with Larry playing Joshua, heir to Moses, about to lead the Israelites into Israel. They actually arrived in the area about forty years ago, but they’ve been sitting out in the desert as a punishment. Punishment for what? Well, after they arrived, they sent some spies into the Promised Land, where they observed that the people who lived there were kind of large and strong and well fed, compared to the exhausted Israelite people who had been wandering in the desert for years. This scared them. So God gently reminded them of all the things he’s done for them and gave them a miraculous sign to reassure them.

No, sorry, actually he punished them all by making them sit out in the desert for forty years, where there was hardly any food and also a lot of them died without ever getting to live in this land he promised they would get to live in. Because they were tired and exhausted and scared.

Veggie Tales, being lighthearted fare for kids, introduces this with a lighthearted song about how all the Israelites are so excited to leave, on account of being really, really hungry.

Upon entering Israel they run straight into Jericho, which is manned by snarky French Peas in intimidating hats. Clearly this will not do, but the Israelites aren’t exactly equipped for a siege. God gives the Israelites the directions to march around the city for seven days and then on the final day blow their horns and yell. Then he’ll knock the walls down for them. Yeah, the walking doesn’t have any direct causal effect on the walls. Really God just wanted to watch them tap dance a bit before he did anything.

I feel obligated to give you all this link of the French Peas singing before dropping slushies on the Israelites’ heads.

There isn’t much of a plot; just the Israelites being tempted to give in and go back and being urged on because God’s way is always the best way (if you exclude the perspective of invaded peoples, of course). There is enough clever dialog to make this work without being boring. In the end, they do the trumpeting rendition and, the way the animation is done, the walls explode kind of like popcorn, which I liked. Standing in the rubble is nobody except a few French Peas who run free, leaving the Israelites to complain about how bad the dust is for their contacts. People being driven from their homes is funny!

Bob and Larry wrap this up by reiterating to the kid that God’s plan is always right, and you should always do what he tells you. They don’t add that there’s totally a precedent for God’s way being “murder. A lot. Basically commit genocide.”

Reviewing Veggie Tales as an Atheist; Rack, Shack and Benny

This episode opens with Larry stumbling around blindly because he’s got an oven mitt on his head. He is doing so because an article in a magazine told him this was the latest fashion. Bob the Tomato is skeptical of the practicality of this. While rebutting Bob’s arguments, Larry trips and falls into the kitchen sink. Bob figures that watching him try to get Larry out for thirty minutes isn’t the best use of our time, so he sends us to watch the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, or as they’re called in this episode, Rack Shack and Benny.

In the Bible, that trio, along with the better known Daniel, are captives of Persian king Nebuchadnezzar. He is trying to raise them as Persian dignitaries, and part of that means giving them non-kosher rich guy Persian food. They choose to eat vegetables instead. The vegan diet does well for them, as they end up healthier than all the other Rich Important People in training, which causes Nebuchadnezzar to promote them to be his most trusted advisers. This goes well until Nebuchadnezzar decides that everybody should start worshiping a big golden statue of him, and those who don’t should be thrown into a fiery furnace. This kind of thing happens a lot in the Old Testament.

In the Veggie Tales episode, Rack, Shack and Benny work in a chocolate bunny factory which routinely violates standard health code regulations and employee benefits, as indicated in the opening song, “Good Morning George.” It’s a fun song, and it also introduces us to Laura Carrot, one of the few female characters who gets her own name. She won’t do much in the episode, in the narrative sense that nothing she does has lasting consequence, but later on she will lead a rescue attempt for Rack, Shack and Benny that will give the world one of the best chase sequences in the history of animation. That is an entirely objective judgment that has nothing whatsoever to do with my personal affection for the Veggie Tales franchise.

Anyway, Mr. Nezzar, a giant pickle, is the stand-in for Nebuchadnezzar. In celebration of the factory’s sale of its two millionth chocolate bunny, he gives everyone an hour to eat as many chocolate bunnies as they want. Everyone chows down, except Rack, played by Jr. Asparagus, convinces Shack and Benny to only eat a few bunnies, because that’s what their mommies would want them to do.

This decision pays off when, at the end of the hour, they are the only workers not doubled over in agony. Mr. Nezzar promptly promotes them to junior executives, which means they have to wear ties. No really, that’s the explanation given in-show as to what their new responsibilities will be. God I love this show.

The other part of their job is standing around while Mr. Nezzar rattles off whatever idea has popped into his head. In this case, he’s decided that, because chocolate bunnies are the best thing ever, he’s going to make a giant bunny statue for all of his employees to sing the Bunny Song to. Oh, here’s the Bunny Song. It’s way better than any of the goody two shoes songs Jr. sings in this episode, which just goes to prove yet again that the devil has all the good music.

Whether this is bad because it endorses an unhealthy diet, is an act of idolatry, or violates employee’s freedom from religious discrimination is unclear. I mean, probably the writer’s weren’t going for the latter, but you never know. In any case, it is Bad, and the protagonists have no intention of singing it. This is unfortunate, because the consequence for not singing is being thrown in the furnace. They have a furnace on site. It’s for defective chocolate bunnies. This is a totally non-wasteful and reasonable thing to have in in your chocolate bunny factory.

Perhaps we should have reported this to OSHA before this point.
Perhaps we should have reported this to OSHA before this point.

Naturally Rack, Shack and Benny refuse to bow and are sentenced to the furnace. Laura Carrot comes along for a rescue that is both awesome and fruitless. They all end up in the furnace, but an angel comes down, just like in the Bible story, and prevents anybody from getting burned up.

This proves that you absolutely should not stand up for what you believe in. You very well might be wrong and trying to incinerate people the divine creator likes.

I mean, the stated theme of the episode is the opposite of that. You should stand up for what you believe in, because Rack, Shack and Benny did that and they got to be part of an awesome miracle. But weren’t Mr. Nezzar’s actions equally informed by his beliefs? He clearly thinks chocolate bunnies are the best thing ever, and that burning up people who don’t agree with his Chocolatebunnitarian beliefs is a reasonable and justified action. The protagonists are challenging him, and he’s standing up for his beliefs, right?

Perhaps I should have considered some alternate points of view.
Perhaps I should have considered some alternate points of view.

All over the world, people are standing up for their beliefs. Richard Dawkins is standing up for his belief that evolution is true and wonderful, and also that religion is toxic. Fundamentalist Muslims are standing up for their beliefs that women should not be educated, while Muslims like Malala Yousafzai are standing up for women’s rights everywhere. In some places, people are standing up for their beliefs by marching under rainbow flags to Lady Gaga; in others, people are standing up by their beliefs by picketing soldier’s funerals because our government isn’t homophobic enough. People who don’t vaccinate their kids are standing up for their belief that vaccines are poison. People who write letters to government officials about displays of the Ten Commandments are standing up for their belief in separation of church and state.

All of our actions are informed by our beliefs, and sometimes those actions take us into direct conflict with those who disagree with our beliefs. Typically, we applaud those who stand up for the beliefs we happen to share, and decry those who stand up for beliefs we happen to reject. This shows that, at our core, when we praise people for standing up for what they believe in, we are actually praising them for standing up for what we believe in. That’s not just tribalism. It also comes from the belief that our beliefs are true. By definition, it’s impossible to believe your beliefs are false. This is why it’s important to consider how we come to our beliefs, what the implications of our beliefs are, and whether we could be wrong.

Since becoming an atheist, I’ve come to see the value of the reverse of this moral. Question your beliefs. Try to falsify your belief, or, if that is impossible, think of something that could falsify what you don’t believe in, and go look for that evidence against. Think about how other people might form their beliefs, and do this with compassion. Try to make room for multiple interpretations in your world, and learn how to cooperate with people who you think are probably wrong about some things. I don’t take this to the radical extreme of refusing to consider anything “true” or “false,” but I do think being willing to let go of my beliefs, in exchange for something that seems more likely to be true, has done me as much good if not more than all the standing up I’ve ever done.

Rereading the Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Six

I have written a lot about the ideas in this book, but very little about the story itself. That’s because this is an idea-centric book, but there is still a plot, and shame on me for neglecting it. What’s at stake is the soul of the Patient; whether he ends up in heaven or hell. I have been focusing on the ideas about right and wrong behavior, rather than religion, but in some ways that is a skewed analysis of the book, because ultimately Screwtape and Wormwood’s goal is not to make The Patient a bad person, but an unbeliever. In other words, even if The Patient becomes a fairly decent person, if he leaves the church he will presumably still descend to hell, and Screwtape will have won.

This is a story problem for people who think often about the fairness of the whole concept of hell, because it raises the question of whether we should really be rooting for heaven. What kind of loving God is really fine with eternal punishment like that? Ultimately we have to hope The Patient avoids hell, as that is clearly not a pleasant end, but there’s still an open question of whether the God he is worshiping is really worth following. Chapter Eight is where Screwtape attempts to explain something of heaven’s perspective, for Wormwood’s benefit. (Important linguistic question; does this, in fact, make him an angel’s advocate? I think it has to.) While Screwtape is an unreliable narrator, under these circumstances it seems he is motivated to be, at the very least, truthful to his understanding of the topic. His information may be flawed, but he is a high ranking tempter, and therefore something of an expert. Here on Earth, the best debaters make themselves as familiar as possible with the arguments and viewpoints of their opponents, so it’s safe to assume that Screwtape’s information is at least moderately reliable.

So what is the excuse of the God of this book’s universe? Free will, of course. “He really does want to fill the universe with loathsome little replicas of Himself – creatures whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because He has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His… You must have often wondered why the Enemy does not make more use of His power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree he chooses and at any moment. But you now see that the Irresistible and the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of his scheme forbids him to use.” He goes on about this for a while, with very pretty words, but he’s ultimately just repeating the same point again and again; God does not reveal himself in some unambiguous way because apparently, if he did, he would override our free will. It’s an argument I’ve heard before, and it sounds nice and noble. Except for the part where people go to hell for no crime worse than being skeptical of the existence of a being who refuses to produce evidence of his existence. That part is pretty terrible.

Then there’s the question of how proof, or strong evidence, would override free will. I can think of two possible interpretations of what Screwtape is saying. Number one, he’s talking about an intense revelation that would have a Lovecraftian effect on our minds. Our little minds would break, and we would end up speaking devout gibberish in a mental hospital. All right, I’m really okay with that not happening. Doesn’t that still leave the option of leaving behind a lot of indirect evidence to help persuade skeptically minded people like me? It really wouldn’t be as hard as a lot of believers make it out to be. Remember, I was raised Christian, and I was reluctant to let go of my beliefs for most of my life. Losing my faith was downright painful. If the Bible had contained, instead of a highly folkloric tale about seven days of creation, a description of the origins of the universe that would conform with later scientific observations, that would have helped enormously. Fix the science and history in the Bible and throw out the more batshit rules, and I might still be a Christian. So might many atheists in the world of Screwtape Letters. So why let us live in a world where facts about the natural world make unbelief even a plausible viewpoint? Interpretation number two; good, convincing evidence would override free will, because it convinces us instead of giving us a chance to exercise our faith. This makes even less sense, and I include it only because I’ve heard something along those lines argued in real life; i.e. God put fossils in the ground to test our faith. You could as easily argue that the lack of good evidence was overrides free will, because it makes intellectually honest belief impossible for many people. Free will is screwed either way, so you might as well go with the humane version.

So as a reader I’m still left with the question; how is a God who would let the universe operate this way really a better alternative for The Patient than Screwtape? Why should I, the reader, care that The Patient ends up in heaven if it’s run by someone who operates the universe like this?

And that, to me, is the biggest failing of this book. It’s not that it sometimes talks about prayer and church and things I don’t really relate to. That’s not really an objective issue with the book, just an example of how it fails to overlap with my personal current interests. The biggest failing of this book is that it’s based on a particular religious view that raises some troubling questions about the God at the center of it. Screwtape’s line about making “loathsome little replicas” is supposed to be read contrarily. He thinks it’s a disgusting idea, but we are meant to think it sounds admirable and glorious. But if God is someone who would allow the eternal suffering of millions just so the remainder will be transmuted copies of himself, what does that suggest about him? To me, it says he’s a callous narcissist. So are we supposed to turn into callous narcissists ourselves? Or are we supposed to turn into entities much like him, except instead of being narcissistic about ourselves, we are enamored of him to the exact degree that he wants us to be, and callous about the fate of those who have failed his little test?

Screwtape may have a point. Loathsome indeed.