How Not to Suck at Moralizing

I love the Oatmeal–it’s a great humor repository for those of us who have the misfortune of being desensitized to coarse language.  Naturally, the latest offering, How to suck at your religion [as implied, language warning], caught my eye.

To sum it up, the comic is a series of short morality plays that instruct us on how to live better lives with respect to our religion.  However, morality plays do not take place in a vacuum, and the author seems to bring certain assumptions to the table:

  • Religion is a subjective preference akin to preferences for certain colors.
  • Religion is personal and individualized expression of ourselves that comes from inside of us.
  • The purpose of religion is to generate certain feelings so that we can handle reflecting on our own mortality and smallness in a vast universe, help people, and be happy.

Now, there might be some religions (like Old Protestant Liberalism and the Emergent Church) that are consistent with these assumptions, and in those cases, the morality imposed on us by the author makes good sense.  Christianity, however, is unequivocally not one of them.

Here’s my religion.  To briefly sum up, two thousand years ago, a man named Jesus walked around Palestine teaching & performing miracles.  He was executed for blasphemy but, in fulfillment of his own prediction, came back to life afterwards.  His explanation for these events was the bizarre claim that he was Yahweh and that his death atoned for the very real problem of my (and everyone’s) rather pervasive wrongdoing.  When I say this is my religion, I’m not saying that I feel this way.  I didn’t navel gaze and imagine a helpful story or make some vague decision.  I’m not saying it makes me more comfortable in the universe.  I’m making a public truth claim that refers to something outside of myself.  I claim that these things actually happened–the same as if I were to claim that I drove a beige station wagon back in high school.

Now, people can certainly think these claims are incorrect for a variety of reasons (though in my experience, very few of these seem to involve historical evidence.)  If people want to fake total agnosticism about the distant past or refuse any facts that don’t fit with their own experience, they can have fun doing so.  But as far as I’m concerned, if we know anything factual from historical evidence, then we also know the bizarre fact that Jesus actually performed miracles and actually rose from the grave, lending a certain credence to his equally bizarre claims.  That kind of changes the nature of my religion.  And it changes it in a way that makes The Oatmeal’s morality plays senseless.  What is right depends on what is real.  Atheists don’t possess a special privilege to act according to their beliefs about the universe that religious people do not share.  Neither do they possess a special authority to share their morality with the intent of improving the behavior of others.  Pretending otherwise is a shallow rhetorical device.

And so I’d like to offer this quick piece of advice on how not to suck at moralizing:  if you don’t even understand what a person’s religion is, you’re probably not going to do a good job of telling him how not to suck at it.

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One Response to How Not to Suck at Moralizing

  1. Jim Hamilton says:

    I found those cartoons incredibly irritating. The immense smugness mixed with the near complete ignorance of actual Christianity makes for pretty exhausting reading. Ugh.

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