Saturday, July 30, 2005

The Religious Atheist and Other Conundrums

I hate to take y'all to church. I know how much I hated going as a kid, but I just finished reading Jon Krakauer's new book, Under the Banner of Heaven, and it is amazing. Anyone interested in religion in America should read it immediately. It's about Mormons. I know something about Mormons. I grew up with Mormons. There were quite a few of them in Katy, Texas. My first heart-rending crush was on a Mormon girl in freshman Algebra who used to flirt with me shamelessly but refused to date me for reasons having to do with the exclusivity of that faith. As a Catholic, I was not one of the elect, and so there was no hope - short of conversion - for me to enter her pure fold. Someone eventually did enter her pure folds, however. The last time I saw her was in a Wal-Mart parking lot, in a Wal-Mart uniform. I was home from college for Christmas. She quickly recounted the sordid tale of how she'd gotten knocked up at nineteen, been excommunicated, had the baby, and was now working as a cashier to make ends meet. I felt waves of jealousy and relief wash over me. You never can tell about people, no matter what they claim to believe.

Now for today's sermon...

America has passed through several Great Awakenings in the course of her history. Individuals usually have one or two of their own. Mine came in the seventh grade, when my science teacher explained the theory of the Big Bang (that's right you flat earthers, you deniers of carbon dating, stop fighting evolution, it's cosmology you should really be afraid of). I was making my First Communion at the time and full of big questions like: "But who created God?" The answers I received in my CCE classes were unsatisfactory. The Big Bang, on the other hand, blew my mind wide open. It grabbed hold of me and shook me awake. It explained so much randomness and evil. It also left a gaping hole where God had been. If I didn't need God to create the world, then what did I need him for? I tried to hold on to Him, deciding that maybe God was responsible for other things. Maybe He wasn't the architect of the universe, maybe he was the janitor. I tried to find a place for Him in my evolving conception of life, but He became smaller and smaller. Even if he only created Man, well, Man is a mess. How can a perfect Being create Man in his image, and Man be such an unmitigated disaster? The priests tell us it's because God gave Man free will. But if He knew we'd only use our free will to take a ten thousand year shit all over His creation, why would he give it to us in the first place? God is omniscient, after all. He's known from the beginning how it was all going to go down.

Besides, if it is so important that we freely choose good, why are there jails? We don't allow criminals to go on using their free will after they prove unworthy of it. Why would God allow us this criminal freedom? Ah, to test us! But I despise this vision of God. The SAT God. Just testing you, folks! Bullshit. Who can accept a God who sits in heaven fucking with his creation, you know, just for the fun of it. It can't be very satisfying for the Lord of the Universe. When I look around I see a handful of people, at best, worthy to enter heaven: Socrates, Lao Tzu, Jesus, Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Henry Miller, Mother Theresa (yes, I read Hitchens' book, but come on!). I'm sure your short list would be different, and that's fine, but it would be short. Many are called, few are chosen. I can just hear Jesus now: "Dad, what can I say? You were right and I was wrong. I kept giving you shit about the Flood, kept begging for one more chance to redeem those nasty fuckers. I really believed it would work, but it's been two thousand years since I let them nail me to that stinking cross, and look at them. Have they learned anything? Fuck 'em. They don't deserve to live. I say Kill 'em all, let You sort 'em out!" Well, that's what I'd be saying if I was Jesus. I hope it's not blasphemous to admit I sometimes put myself in Jesus' place. Isn't that what we're supposed to do? From The Imitation of Christ to WWJD? Christians have been urged to get into Jesus' head, his heart, his life. So even now I try, and on those rare occasions when I succeed, I see one pissed-off dude.

These are the thoughts of a religious atheist. I gave up my faith, but it refused to give up on me. I keep thinking about God. Trying to understand what He was trying to do, what He hoped for this world, and how I can work to fulfill His wishes. So what if He doesn't exist. He is still the image of perfection. I'd rather aspire to His will than to fame or fortune. (Sure, I could go on Fear Factor and eat stewed maggots with the best of them, but it would leave me feeling so empty.) It took me many years to admit I didn't believe in God anymore. I thought if I admitted I didn't believe in Him, He would strike me down. (There's a good Catholic for you!) Yet I never became strident in my newfound Godless Communism. I never ridiculed faith, nor those lucky enough to have it, as I always saw my own loss of faith as a tragedy, not as some joyful release from cant. Think about it. Take one look at this fucked up world and tell me it makes you happier to think there is no one to tally our deeds, to reward the just and punish the wicked. Without faith, however irrational, I sometimes think the world would annihilate itself in a matter of weeks. Belief is the hand staying our appetite for destruction. We know the impulse to rape, pillage and destroy, but something holds us back (at least from going all the way down that path). That something is fear of God. His existence is irrelevant. We all doubt it, but all secretly suspect. He's up there! He sees me! I better put that cookie back in the jar! Everyone secretly fears they'll be held to account for their actions. It makes you grateful for fear.

In some ways I'm more involved with the Lord today than when I believed in Him. I am attracted to God, even more to His Son. I hover on the edge of faith. Growing up in Houston I used to watch preachers and healers on late night TV: Jimmy Swaggart, Benny Hinn. They were good, no doubt about it. They had something. I often listened to their low rent cousins on the radio. It was gripping. God just grips you, even when you don't believe in Him. I will never pass up a chance to listen to someone's testimony. In college, street preachers and latter-day prophets often stopped by campus to proclaim the Good News. I made it a point never to miss one. I never minded their presence in my secular world. Sometimes I was so moved I would cry. Then I'd go back to my dorm, drink liquor, take drugs, fuck my girlfriend without a condom and know that if there was a hell, I was surely going to it. Oh well.

I take the faithful seriously. I take the extremely faithful extremely seriously. I myself still love Jesus, even though I don't believe He was the Son of God (there is no God, so how can He be?). The hypocrisy of those who do believe in Him - who talk the talk but can't seem to walk the walk - infuriates me more than it does God (if He existed). Sometimes I want to SCREAM: What part of "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven" don't you understand? What part of "Blessed are the peacemakers" don't you understand? Their Sanitized, Reaganized, Ayn Randified, Fully Incorporated, Limited Liability G.I. Joe Jesus makes me want to puke. My sole consolation is that, should they turn out to be right - if there is a God watching over us and His justice awaits - then none of their deeds has escaped his omniscient eye. No need to start a homegrown Baader-Meinhof gang. Henry Kissinger is already toast! So is George Bush. I just wish I could see his face when he finally faces St. Peter and is asked about the Iraq War.

What about all the innocent civilians who were killed because you started this war? The women, the children, the men who were tortured to death though innocent?

Um...but I was saving even more from a monster! Saddam Hussein! He killed hundreds of thousands during his reign. He was a devil!

Didn't your father supply him with the weapons he used to murder those innocents? Didn't your own Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, once go to Baghdad and shake his hand, after he gassed the Kurds?

He'd only gassed Iranians at that point. D'oh!

Besides, we're not talking about what Saddam Hussein did. We're talking about what you did.

But I meant well.

Yes, I know. You'll find your intentions over there, on that road...

(Saint Peter indicates the ROAD TO HELL.)

Now get going!


Say hello to Saddam for me!

Of course, I doubt Christians of this stripe really and truly believe in God. If they did they would already know He is watching and weighing every deed and they wouldn't be behaving the way they do.

There's a great Lenny Bruce line about the city I now call home: "In New York, even if you're Catholic, you're Jewish." Maybe I find that joke so funny because I was raised in the first faith he mentions and decided to marry a nice girl from the latter, so in my case it has become literally true. Maybe it's because I've always felt the two faiths have so much in common (above all their staggering preoccupation with guilt). I know Lenny wasn't making a statement about theological affinities. He was suggesting the overwhelming influence of Jewish culture on this amazing city. But the Church I was raised in also has its domain of overwhelming influence. It's called the world.

You can guess from the way I turned out, I never really got along with the Church. When it wasn't boring it seemed downright crazy. I've begun reading in Apologetics, that misguided attempt of religion to explain itself rationally. Catholic apologetics begins with the Church's belief that the Eucharist is the actual body of Christ, and that the wine is his actual blood. Aside from the humorlessness of this literal interpretation of Christ's words in John 6:51 - I mean, if Jesus really wanted the disciples to eat his flesh and drink his blood, they could have done it right then and there, with Peter taking the left forearm and Judas the right foot - there is the more disturbing fact that every time a Catholic takes communion he is cannibalizing the Son of God. For Christ's sake! And don't get me started on Original Sin - if God knows all from all eternity, then he knew Eve would not be able to resist the temptation to eat the fruit of The Tree of Knowledge. For that matter he knew the serpent would tempt her. So why did he create the serpent and why did he plunk that fucking tree down RIGHT THERE! It don't make sense. The story just doesn't hold holy water.

Yeah, well, there are a lot of problems with the concept of God. Too many. That's why I gave Him up for Lent. But He refuses to give me up. So here I am. Here's my version of the joke: "In the Church, even if you're an atheist, you're Catholic." What more can I say? I am, and I am.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Bastards of Oil

If I see that BP ad one more time I'm gonna SCREAM! You know the one. The one that asks the burning question: "Which would you rather have - your car, or a cleaner environment?" BECAUSE THOSE ARE YOUR ONLY FUCKING CHOICES, AMERICA! GOT IT?

Back in philosophy class, we used to call this a false disjunct. Which would you rather have - higher taxes, or your freedom (the freedom that comes from keeping every bloody penny you earn, accumulating a mountain of untaxed wealth, using it to build a McMansion surrounded by razor wire, a minefield, and a twenty foot high electric fence, paying a high school dropout - or more likely, an unemployed veteran of the Iraq war - minimum wage to guard the perimeter while you cower inside, cradling your flat screen HDTV and hoping against hope that when the time comes he'll muster the courage, on your behalf, to open fire on the ravening hordes of homeless children fucked over by a bankrupt government...WAIT! There is no government, because there are no more taxes to pay for all those frivolous things governments do, like educate those children for "free," or protect us from Osama Bin Laden)...well, which do you want? BECAUSE THOSE ARE YOUR ONLY FUCKING CHOICES, AMERICA! GOT IT?

Just kidding. That was a false disjunct, or in the vulgate, bullshit. Real Americans see through bullshit pretty easily. Which is why BP casts fake real Americans in their ads. Instead of seeing through bullshit, fake real Americans say things like: "Give up my car? That's like asking me to give up chocolate!" (The fake real American in the offending BP spot looks like the kind of woman for whom giving up a Whitman's Sampler now and again would indeed constitute a hellish sacrifice.) But let's leave her eating disorder out of it for a minute and parse what's really going on here.

What's really going on is very simple. BP is lying. BP is lying because it's a big fat greedy bastard of an oil company with a lousy environmental record - one of the worst - and it wants to distract us from that black and viscous fact by showing that fake real Americans think cleaning up the environment is so dang crazy it's like taking chocolate from a fat lady. How else view policy changes that would result in Americans using less BP product? (Then again, eating lots of chocolate won't result in THE END OF LIFE AS WE KNOW IT. Unless you're this guy.)

It's the same bait and switch Trent Lott pulled the last time Congress was thinking of hiking fuel economy standards. You may remember him standing on the floor of the Senate next to a very large photograph of a very small car that he famously derided as a "purple people eater." It was a masterful bit of fearmongering: You raise gas mileage, you die!

Except that it isn't true. Death is not the only alternative to a more fuel efficient car. Just as walking is not the only alternative to a cleaner environment. Of course, if BP can convince you otherwise, you are likely to be far more indulgent of its environmental incontinence. Look, America, we have no choice. We've got to pump more and more oil, and you've got to consume it, and when you pump oil, well, spill happens.

Please contact BP and tell them to cut the bullshit. But be polite. Don't call it bullshit. Call it a false disjunct.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Ready, Fire, Aim!

The Democrats are at it again. They wasted no time forming a circular firing squad after recent remarks by DNC Chairman Howard Dean portraying Republicans as fat cats who never had to do an honest day's work in their lives. Democrats promptly pissed their pants. Before the stain could dry a gaggle of self-appointed party leaders threw themselves in front of the cameras, so eager were they to perform the traditional hand-wringing ceremony. The good doctor's remarks were tut-tutted and distance was taken from the radical notion that there is anything shady about the party of Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, and Tom DeLay. Smooth move, guys.

It seemed clear to me the Chairman had his tart little tongue planted firmly in his populist cheek, but the joke went right over the heads of our party Olympians. Which isn't surprising - most of them long ago evicted their sense of humor to make room for preening self-importance. This was exemplified by the performance of Joe Biden. Damn Joe, what kind of Democratic party is it if we can't even hate rich people anymore? The whole thing makes me want to scream. WHAAAARRRRGGGGHHHHEEEEYAAAAH! Damn. That felt good. (I finally understand where you were coming from, Howard.)

It's telling that the current leadership will instantly marshal all the passion and eloquence at its command to decry one of their own, but not to defend the party's honor. What sane woman wants to date a man who refuses to defend himself when attacked by some asshole in a bar? What sane man wants to date a woman who constantly bitches about her friends? Yet this is how we behave. Is it any wonder we keep striking out with voters? They see how we treat our own and they are disgusted. Instead of taking on the asshole in the bar, we think we can get the girl by becoming Asshole Lite. Or we think we can improve our individual fortunes at the expense of our friends. My mom knew better. She used to tell me and my brother, "If you can't think of anything nice to say about someone, don't say anything at all." It's homespun wisdom the Democratic party would do well to follow. As I don't expect it to do so, let me couch my advice in terms more likely to touch the power hungry heart.

Dear Senator Biden et al.,

You are not helping. You are not helping yourself, and you
are not helping your party.



Todd Smith

A final note on ideology. "Centrist" Democrats claim that Howard Dean can never lead the party back to power because he is too extreme. He is accused of waging "class warfare," by which the chickenshit - er, centrist - wing means he should stop reminding everyone that a worker who puts in 40 hours a week ought to damn well make enough to live on. (Radical stuff!) I would remind these centrists of another "extremist" who continued to stand up for what he believed in after initially leading his party to massive electoral defeat. His name was Barry Goldwater.

Today we have a name for the Goldwater progeny: President, Senate Majority Leader, and Speaker of the House.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Danger Will Robinson

So much stupid shit happens in the course of any given day that it's impossible to keep track of it all, and in the interest of maintaining my sanity I don't try. Consequently it's hard to pinpoint which particular instance of stupid shit incited me to start this blog. No, wait - it was a top ten list.

The list I'm talking about was compiled by the nattering nabobs of negativity over at Human Events magazine, where a committee of unreconstructed reactionaries recently selected the Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries. There were some real surprises:

4) The Kinsey Report. Kinsey's research merely confirmed what we all already suspected: our parents are (or at least were) freaks. His crime, according to the brain trust at Human Events, was "to give a scientific gloss to the normalization of promiscuity and deviancy." Is that what talking honestly about sex does? I personally think MTV does a much better job of normalizing promiscuity and deviancy, though I admit to lingering doubts about their scientific credentials.

7) The Feminine Mystique. Headline: Betty Friedan Nearly Upsets Karl Marx as Das Kapital Ekes Out 6th Place on Stupidest List Ever! Human Events apparently holds Friedan single-handedly responsible for tricking impressionable females into believing they might find more satisfaction in the workplace than the kitchen. Plus, she banged a communist. Why all the outrage? Communists are hot! (I base this entirely on Garbo's performance in Ninotchka.) More shocking is that Friedan opens a six-pack of whup-ass on Nietzsche, whose Beyond Good and Evil is relegated to 9th place. How can anyone take seriously a group that thinks women are scarier than Germans!

I don't know much about Human Events beyond their low opinion of human events these past 200 years (typical conservatives!) but I am generally of the opinion people should do whatever the hell they want, be it watching NASCAR, machine-gunning ripe fruit, engaging in consensual "sayex" with their cousins, or making lists - Don't Tread on Me You Can Do Whatever The Fuck You Want, that's my motto - but there is something rotten about the Human Events list...something that reeks of...what is that stink? Oh yeah! National Socialism. The Nazis too compiled lists of harmful books. Then they burned them. Remember what Heine said about book burning: "Dort, wo man B├╝cher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen." He was right, of course. Compiling lists of dangerous books is a prelude to eliminating them. Given that a book is nothing more than a collection of ideas, and ideas call the human mind home, such a list is a prelude to eliminating human beings, lest they precipitate more untoward human events. I'm not saying some of these books (Mein Kampf, for example) haven't proved harmful. No, wait, that's exactly what I'm saying: BOOKS DON'T KILL PEOPLE; PEOPLE KILL PEOPLE. If you want their bad ideas to die like a dog in the street, send them into the street, where they can be exposed to that glorious disinfectant, sunshine.

I do go on. Forgive me. This is my first entry and I was rushed. (As Goethe said, "If I had more time, I would write a shorter letter.") In the past my response to such instances of stupid shit has been to try and ignore it, fail, and then stew about it, becoming a little more aggrieved at the state of the world while doing exactly nothing about it. No more. This time my indignation actually produced a tangible result: a letter. I've never written a letter to the editor before, but the idiotarians at Human Events awakened the slumbering beast within. I started this blog to tell you about it, to encourage you to awake and scream. No more free passes for stupid shit! Fighting back is good for your mental health. Besides, it can be fun. I've reprinted my letter below in the hope that it will encourage you to compose one of your own and send it to the editors at Human Events. Be sure to copy me if you do. I'll try to post a few of the cheekier efforts right here.


Subject: 'Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries'

Dear Sirs,

Thank you for providing me with a good laugh and the reassurance that, as Dick Cheney might say, your movement is in its death throes.

Harry Crocker? Fred Smith? Prof. Brad Birzer of Hillsdale College? (Isn't that where Humbert Humbert taught English to fawning bobbysoxers in Lolita?) Your panel of has-beens and intellectual bottom feeders isn't qualified to judge a Gong Show episode, much less discuss political theory or the history of Western Philosophy. We both know most of them have never read the books on this list. (Do you expect me to believe Phyllis Schlafly is actually literate?) And seeing the promoter of the Swift Boat Liars given a forum in which to decry one of the great minds the Western philosophical tradition - I mean Nietzsche, not Ralph Nader - is enough to make a stone cry.

Good luck to you on your next list, in which Ann Coulter will select the 'Ten Most Harmful Dialogues of Plato' and demand of Socrates' ghost, "Why do you hate Athens?"

-Todd Smith

Friday, July 08, 2005

Boy Howdy!

Dear Friends, Bitter Enemies, Undecideds,

Welcome to Howard Beale Street, my blog and alter-ego. Does that make it my blego? (And there will be puns.)

I here assert no authority beyond my own personal experience. I don't pretend to know any more about the way of the world than its current leaders. I understand the blogosphere needs a new addition like New York needs a new avant-guard theatre troupe. I feel your pain. Now you're going to feel mine.

You can look forward to intermittent postings about life, love, politics, religion, philosophy, country music (and the other kind), cinema, theatre and dance. If I left anything out, don't worry. I'll get to it eventually.

They say in cyberspace no one can hear you scream. Thank God. Like our friend the atom, these rants and raves will consist of mostly empty space. I never promised you a rose garden. Or ideas. Or insight. I just know that I can't keep my mouth shut any longer.

And so, Al Gore, thank you for inventing the internets. I'll sleep better at night once I get this off my chest.