So, the other day I was doing public outreach at a church event. Let’s say I was promoting “Cash for Clunkers.” Remember that? Remember George Bush and his occasional wacky schemes that put a few extra hundred dollars in your pocket every few years? I kinda miss that sometimes.
Anyway, this is an analogy, but it fits pretty closely. So I’m making a speech, asking people if they want to pay less for gas, and get some incentives to ditch their old dirty cars and buy an electric. “How many people here are happy with the amount of money they pay for gas every week?” I ask rhetorically. Surprisingly, one hand goes up.
Later on, as we’re taking questions about the program and passing out flyers, the woman who raised her hand approaches me.
“I wasn’t being sarcastic when I raised my hand,” she says. “We get really good gas mileage.”
“Well, that’s great,” I say. “It’s true, every once in a while I meet someone who owns a car that’s already very efficient, so they don’t really need our program.”
“Oh no, it’s not an efficient model,” she replies. “I’m pretty sure it’s miraculous.”
“Yes, God just puts a little extra money in our pockets whenever we need it.”
It’s not the time to do a spit-take, so I settle for, “Wow, that must be really handy,” accompanied by a somewhat awkward smile.
Now, the people at this church are really, really nice people. I mean, they are absolutely adorable. It’s probably the most racially diverse crowd I’ve been in since I moved here. And the people are kind and friendly and laughing–the children are rambunctious but not obnoxious. If it came down to it, I’d definitely call the pastor for help turning people out to a rally against racism or against climate change or something along those lines. But the religiously inspired paradigm they use lends itself to inadvertent insults and denigration of human achievement and human effort–which are obstacles to change.
In this woman’s case, I can’t really be confident that her car gets good gas mileage. We didn’t discuss what constitutes good vs. bad gas mileage, and it sounded like she was saying that the mileage actually varies somewhat, according to whether God feels like they need some extra cash or not. Like, when they’re poor, God magically makes the engine burn more efficiently, and when they’re flush he lets it run normally.
If this is true, that means several things. For one thing, it’s a testable claim which if verified would lend support to the hypothesis that not just god but specifically Yahweh, the god of the Bible exists. But that’s a story for another day. Another thing it means is that there’s barely any point in measuring fuel efficiency. Also, it means that whatever humans put work into designing and building her car to be as fuel efficient as it is–their work is paltry and meaningless compared to the influence of this supernatural being.
I am also forced to wonder if God is artificially depressing her car’s greenhouse gas emissions when He makes it magically more efficient, or if he’s artificially increasing them when he’s letting the mileage go lower. Either way, it would seem to me like global climate change is a much more pressing concern than the concerns of this or that family in upstate New York, no matter how nice they are.
Then my brain starts to boggle at the worldview that sees this omnipotent being as being avidly concerned with one family’s monthly budget but can’t be bothered to avert a major ecological catastrophe, but then I remember that this is the same God that’s supposed to destroy the world, or so some Christians believe, and that’s supposed to be a good thing, which is why they don’t have to worry about climate change, and there’s a burning smell and smoke starts to come out of my ears.
Truly, even in a congregation whose ethics and values are in the right place, religion poisons everything. Not only was this woman blinding herself to the value of human achievement, she’s also using her religious belief to buttress her system justification, meaning that she’s rendering herself less likely to even be able to hear evidence that economic inequality exists in the world and is unjust. If God pads the pockets of the deserving, the obvious implication is that those with less padded pockets haven’t given God what he wants.
I don’t really see how you can maintain a belief in an invisible but powerful being that rewards those who please it but not those who don’t, and not have it feed into system justification at some point.
Theism is a poisonous and destructive belief, even in very small doses. I don’t suppose it’s reasonable to think that religion will end in my lifetime, but that doesn’t mean I can’t give it a shove while I’m passing through.