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Oct 09 2009

The Banana Man chronicles-5: Fear and loathing in Jesus Land

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

As readers may have noticed I have been quite harsh, more so than is my custom, with Ray Comfort and his evangelistic efforts, derisively referring to him as Banana Man and ridiculing his pathetic attempts at combating the theory of evolution. Why? Because I think that the kind of message that he preaches (which is very similar to the ones I used to hear as a young man in evangelical churches and in organizations like Youth for Christ and Campus Crusade for Christ) is positively evil.

Note that I am not saying that Comfort himself is evil. For all I know, he may be a perfectly charming man, kind to animals and children. But his message to people is evil though he, like all such evangelists, prattles endlessly about how they are spreading the ‘good news’ of Jesus to people.

What I find despicable is that Banana Man and other evangelists try desperately to make their listeners miserable by creating in them a sense of self-loathing (“The Law of God shows us that the best of us is nothing but a wicked criminal”, on page 47 of his introduction to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species) and an inordinate fear of death, so that he can then bribe them to accept Jesus in order to assuage the terror that he himself has helped create. He provides direct support for Sigmund Freud’s suspicion that fear of death is the basis of religion.

Look at the things Banana Man and almost all evangelists of his stripe say to frighten people about death.

We will be without excuse when we stand before God because he gave us our conscience to know right from wrong…On Judgment Day, when God judges you, will you be found innocent or guilty of breaking this Law? Think before you answer. Will you go to heaven or hell? (p. 43)

All of humanity stands on the edge of eternity. We are all going to die. We will all have to pass through the door of death. It could happen to us in twenty years, or in six months … or today. For most of humanity, death is a huge and terrifying plummet into the unknown. (p. 41)

They are flat out wrong. What happens after we die is not unknown and should not be terrifying. Death and what happens after death is really quite simple and easy to understand. If you accept evolution, then you should know that all living things are related to each other. We are all part of one tree of life. We can be as certain about what happens after our own death as we can be about anything, because our death is no different from that of a banana or bee or a fish dying, and we know what happens in those cases.

Overwhelming evidence points to the fact that when we or any other living thing dies, all that happens is that our biological functions cease and we become just an inanimate mass of atoms. That’s it. There is no credible, objective evidence whatsoever that death is anything else but that. Life after death, heaven and hell, are all just figments of the imagination. Just as when a bird dies, we don’t think that a bird god judges whether it goes to a bird heaven or a bird hell, so it is for us. There is absolutely no reason that our particular branch of the evolutionary tree should have a different fate after death than any other branch.

There is nothing hugely mysterious or terrifying about death. The only emotion that makes sense as one gets older and approaches one’s own death is regret. Regret at not having left the planet in better shape, fought more vigorously for justice, helped others more, learned more things, read more books, seen more films, done more things, seen more places, enjoyed more the company of one’s family and friends, and so on. Regret at not being able to continue enjoying life is the only reasonable reaction to the thought of one’s impending death. But balancing that should be the deep sense of satisfaction that one has experienced the joy of life.

But people like Comfort, instead of allowing people to come to terms with death and relinquishing life peacefully when the time comes, instead try to terrify them for their own selfish purposes. People like him prey on the gullible and weak-minded, those who are not able to see that they are being manipulated. They exploit the reasonable fear people have that the process of dying might be painful, perhaps due to a protracted illness, to imply that people should fear death itself. The ‘comfort’ these evangelists offer believers is that if they believe in Jesus they can avoid hell. (“So you no longer need to be tormented by the fear of death”, p. 49.)

I would be less harsh on them if the ‘salvation’ they offer from fear of death was a one time thing. But the solution that these evangelists offer is not like a vaccine that inoculates for life, that enables people to overcome their fear of death, get on with their lives anew, and live the rest of their lives joyously. Such an outcome would not serve the evangelists’ purpose. They want you to repeatedly seek salvation over and over again and, more importantly, keep sending money to them.

So what they offer instead is a short-term satisfaction that disappears after a day or two. The ‘comfort’ they offer is more like a shot of heroin given to a drug addict, that makes you feel good for the moment, but then the effects wear off, you suffer withdrawal pains, feel miserable, and need to go back for another fix. They seek to create not emotionally healthy people but emotionally stunted drug addicts for Jesus.

I have been to evangelical meetings and know the routine. (The documentary Marjoe gives a revealing look behind the scenes at how they operate.) Week after week the gullible, under relentless condemnation of their sinfulness by the preacher, weepily confess once again what loathsome people they are, how they have strayed and sinned once again, how undeserving they are of god’s love, and then once again ‘give their lives to Jesus’ in order to get their Jesus fix. And they will return the next week to say the same thing.

The message that Comfort and his ilk preach is one that increases misery and self-loathing. It is death-obsessed and life denying.

In reality, life is a precious gift that we must enjoy while we can for as long as we can, and we should seek to have as many others enjoy it as well by seeking justice, being nice to people, and enabling them to enjoy life more too. Then when the time comes for us to die, we should do so gracefully and in peace, grateful for the fact that we have lived.

The atheist Robert Ingersoll said it best: “My creed is that: Happiness is the only good. The place to be happy is here. The time to be happy is now. The way to be happy is to make others so.”

How joyful and life affirming that creed is! In a few short words, it tells us how to live in a way that makes life better for everyone.

POST SCRIPT: The failures of logic and evidence in support of god

An excellent expose of the fallacious arguments put forward by religious believers. Well worth watching.

(Thanks to onegoodmove.)

8 comments

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  1. 1
    Tadas

    Mano,
    This is one of my favorite single blogs. The ‘regret’ paragraph especially resonated with me. Indeed, we are on this planet for a very short amount of time. It would be better spent enjoying and appreciating music, friends, romance, art, family, animals, and Nature as opposed to missing out on, or worse yet, destroying all of these. Ingersoll’s quote is spot on. Thanks for brightening up this cloudy day! (lame and cliched, but true)

  2. 2
    Norm

    An excellent finish to this series, Mano.

  3. 3
    Chris

    Nailed it!

    Mano, your post today is fantastic.

    I was also struck by your paragraph about regret. I came to this same conclusion towards the end of high school. Around this time my mother asked me if I believed in an afterlife. I told her that I didn’t and she said that she was pleased because it meant I would try hard and be successful in life. Because I am aware of the short and finite duration of life, she knew I would be an active participant in the world and not be paralyzed into inaction due to a misguided notion of divine assistance or retribution.

    This has been my personal philosophy for some time. It’s a large reason why I try to travel as much as possible. I want to see and experience as much as I can in amount of time I can. I sometimes encourage myself to make decisions that take me outside of my comfort zone by reminding myself that some opportunities may never come again and I would then have to live regretting having not been more adventurous.

  4. 4
    Dulcy

    Mano,
    Excellent post. I enjoyed the link at the end, too, about putting faith in its place. And I agree with Ingersoll’s creed about happiness, and the way to make that so is by making others happy. However, I disagree with Chris’s comment about regrets, travel, and adventures. I have traveled a lot and had many adventures, living abroad in Europe for a year, in Asia for a year, on a tall ship for a year, and visiting over 23 countries. But I do not think those things make me happy, or that not doing those things would be a regret. I want to make other people happy by being a midwife and tending to pregnant and laboring women, wherever they are; at home, not necessarily traveling around the world.
    So, like Chris said, it is important to make people happy. But how can adventures and travel be justified…they often leave a large carbon footprint, for self-pleasure?

  5. 5
    Mano

    Dulcy,

    I have been following Chris’s travels and he is actually a low-footprint traveler. Apart from flying to a region, once there he gets about on foot, bikes, hitchhiking, public transport, and the like. Now if Chris ever became rich enough that he started to fly his own private jet all over the world, then we should take him aside and have a friendly conversation…

    I think it is ok for each of us to indulge ourselves a little, to set aside a little time and money to do the things that give us pleasure, as long as it is within reason and does not harm others.

    While making others happy is a good way to be happy, It is also hard to make others happy if you are feeling unhappy. It is a delicate balance that each person must find for themselves.

  6. 6
    KuraL

    The faith of the Banana Man is ultimately an immoral creed. It says that one can violate any commandment, law or rule, and be judged innocent and saved in the eyes of god – or the celestial teapot – if one accepts the sovereignty of the teapot. So conduct means nothing. By the perverse Calvinist dogma of predestination, John Couey the murderer of Jessica Lunsford, may yet enjoy eternal life if he is of the elect of god, or has accepted someone as his lord and savior. At the core all belief based traditions are immoral.

  7. 7
    Corbin

    Hi Mano,

    This was an interesting series. I agree that Comfort’s position is indefensible. I’ll simply make the observation that I have made in the past that the evangelical right wing is not actually a fair representation of modern and post-modern liberal religious thought. In particular, the emphasis on death and what happens when you die is really not a major issue for many religious perspectives. Much more central is the question of pain and suffering for those of us who are alive now. So judging all of modern religious thought based on the activities of people like Comfort is sort of like judging modern music based on the works and of Ted Nugent.

    I also greatly enjoyed the video there — it’s very tightly argued. I especially liked the point made that unexplained phenomena do not by themselves represent evidence support particular religious ideas. We are conducting an adult Sunday school series on science and religion at our church and I am planning to show the video there. It should provoke an interesting discussion. For me the point of departure is the nifty “meter” which points from “specific” to “vague” – the point made that arguments for specific qualities of some god must be fallacious but if we only assign vague properties to god then this is “practically useless”. I would say that the “practical value” is a emotional/personal value. This would be analogous to the “practical value” of art, say poetry, for example. By “definition” a poem is a collection of words where the meaning of words is extremely vague — not intended to provide an argument for the “evidence” of anything. And yet a good poem can be said to be as valuable to the human experience — or at least for those individuals who appreciate it — as anything else you might point out.

  8. 8
    Ray Foulkes

    Just like to way “here, here” to Kural.

    And “keep up the good work” Mano!

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