I'm not particularly religious. I was brought up Roman Catholic, and though I'm not technically practicing, I would say that I still begrudgingly hold myself to the tenets of the Church, even though I disagree with about half of them. It's kind of like when you have a favorite uncle who is a total fuckup: he's still your uncle and you feel like you have to defend him even though he just stole $20 off your dresser. But that's neither here nor there.
The point is, I'm not one of these people who thinks that all religion is inherently bad. I do know people who completely reject religion out of hand, not because they have studied it, or because they have gone through some sort of empirical process deconstructing the concept of "God" and come to the conclusion, after arduous research, that "He" does not exist and the matter can finally be laid to rest. It's actually sort of a hip thing to make fun of religious people, and completely reject all of the tenets they believe in.
I don't particularly like the condescending tone that a lot of people take when discussing religion. Any time you mention Catholicism, for example, there is inevitably going to be some mention of priests inappropriately touching little kids, or (at best) the whole "why can't you eat meat on Fridays?" issue. Again, I'm not all that religious -- although the argument could be made that I used to be -- but I am offended, not so much because I take personal offense as an erstwhile Catholic (I know the Church is filled with a bunch of aloof fuddy-duddies), but because of the knee-jerk nature by which some people simply dismiss religion as stupid or inherently negative.
I don't think religion is necessarily a bad thing, although it certainly has been many times. From the Crusades to Islamic jihads, religion has been twisted by bad people using the good name of God/Allah to push ahead their own selfish and myopic agendas. Religion was intended to build community among like-minded people, and foster caring within those communities, eventually spreading outward. That was the original intent Jesus had, but as in all politics, people decided to use Him in whatever way they chose.
This is why we have manipulative assholes, from Jerry Falwell to Fred Phelps to Osama Bin Laden -- and make no mistake, there is precious little difference -- hijacking religion to their own ends, and foisting it upon the naive or easily fooled masses in order to build support for their own causes. This is why political topics that aren't inherently religion-based -- such as abortion, gay marriage, stem-cell research, euthanasia, etc -- are championed by politicians masquerading as Men of the Cloth. They somehow find a way to spin the scriptures to fit their own needs. Now, the Bible is certainly imperfect, and frequently self-contradictory, but it was never meant to be spun by some kind of bible-quoting politician.
So given the kind of high-profile religious leadership this country has produced, it's no surprise that many rational non- or semi-spiritual folks would grow to detest these charlatans and want to thwart their influence on anything that remotely affects our lives.
The bottom line is that many of these organizations -- the Westboro Baptist Church, every member of which should be shot in the back of the head execution-style, comes chillingly to mind -- are simply fascist organizations that have no more to do with religion than Deion Sanders had with a music career. Sure, they want to be a part of it, and even claim they are part of it, but any right-thinking American can tell they are just faking it. So many of these organizations preach nothing short of hate and intolerance, and if that is what Jesus truly wanted in the first place, then you can count me out. I don't want any part of that world.
I came across two examples of maddening religious idiocy in the last couple days. Neither of them are earth-shattering, but they are so frustrating for a struggling Christian to watch, given that I want so badly to believe that Christianity is an inherently good thing, as I had thought my whole life, and I am getting precious little affirmation.
The first was viewing a filmed stage version of Jesus Christ Superstar from 2000. No, I had no problem with the movie, which is arguably my favorite musical of all time, and the 2000 version is actually much better than the lazy and self-indulgent 1973 version, in my opinion. There was a short documentary about the history of the production in 1970. It made a mention of the play being protested in many cities -- notably in Jesus-crazy South America.
Now, if you've ever seen Jesus Christ Superstar or if you know the album (and I do by heart), you know that though it is an update, and somewhat irreverent (excuse the pun) in its use of language and terminology -- for example, the line "One thing I'll say for him / Jesus is cool" -- you will find precious little blasphemy of the character of Christ himself, or anything questioning his firmly entrenched reputation as a Deity.
Instead, many ignoramuses decided that they would instinctively grab their pre-made picket signs and stand outside the theaters, chanting some ridiculous rhyme and singing "Amazing Grace" in hopes of dissuading one of the poor, misguided ticket-buyers to turn around and walk away. And oh by the way, none of these jackasses had ever seen the play! I really pity anyone who protested JCS and then ended up seeing it, only to think, "Wow I'm a fucking idiot."
Similar sight-unseen protests have taken place over movies with religious, and usually Christian, themes. The film The Last Temptation of Christ was protested -- and even banned from Blockbuster video stores for a long time -- mainly for depicting a scene in which Jesus is shown having sex. Immediately, the pretentious and disingenuous windbags of the religious world attacked the movie, saying that Jesus had been blasphemed and that they weren't going to stand for it.
Again, almost all of these people made this judgment without seeing the movie. Forget the fact that it's one of the most powerful, reverent and relevent movies ever made about Jesus -- and that if these idiots had actually finished the movie, they would see how much more heroic and special His sacrifice was, given that he actually was tempted, and yet decided not to give in. No, it's much more important to grind a political and religious axe in a game of "Who Loves Jesus More?"
A similar situation occurred at the 1999 release of the movie Dogma, however that movie should have been protested not because it's really that blasphemous but rather because it's just a piece of shit movie. Just do me a favor, religious protesters: before you complain about being offended, see what you are protesting against and actually BE OFFENDED first. Then you can protest.
The other incident was something I witnessed downtown on Tuesday. My lunch buddy and I were on our way down the street on which I work, when we spotted a man wearing a sandwich board and yelling the usual boilerplate the-end-is-nigh type crap. This is actually not an uncommon sight downtown during the day. There a couple of middle-aged men, both fat and grey-haired with pure white baseball caps, wearing sandwich boards saying "you are a sinner" and such things. They are well-behaved men, who offer literature and mostly keep to themselves when they are not yelling about Jesus and how he's basically going to come down from heaven like Rambo and blow us all to smithereens.
Brief aside: how pathetic must this existence be for these men. They dedicate several hours a day to standing in the middle of a sidewalk, surrounded by people whose feelings for them run the gamut from annoyance to hatred. I can't imagine this approach has converted a single lost soul. Plus, their perception of Jesus and God is one of a vengeful ruler who would rather smite us than give us the benefit of the doubt.
The sign that this man was wearing on this day read, "Ask me why you are going to hell." I have a few problems with this. First of all, who the fuck is this guy? Why in the name of Christ would I ask this douchebag anything about my life? He wears a fucking sandwich board in the middle of the street and shouts ominous phrases about repenting. Eliminate the sandwich board and a shower and this waste of precious blood is basically a ranting homeless person. And you know how I feel about them.
Second on my list of pet peeves about this guy is the implication of the sign: that I am going to hell. Now, am I going to hell? Probably so. I'm kind of a bastard. But this guy doesn't know that. And there are some wonderful, beautiful, pure-of-heart people in this world who I guarantee are not going to hell (if it exists, of course). What if one of those nice people reads that sign, should it apply to them as well? Should those people start wondering if they are truly going to hell? Should this sandwich board somehow make them question the lives they are leading?
Thirdly, the sign implies that he who wears it is clearly not going to hell. That he is truly holier-than-thou. This is a pretty bold presumption on his part: he's pretty sure he will somehow escape the hot flames given how he runs his life, yet he has no problem telling just about everyone else in the world, without knowing a God-darned thing about them, that they are destined for fire and brimstone. Suddenly, this guy is the authority on who gets past the Pearly Gates and who doesn't. I don't buy it. I don't buy this guy as the arbiter of divine providence.
So let's assume he isn't holier than any of us. Does that mean that in his mind, he is already certain he himself will be relegated to the netherworlds? In other words, he must know that he is on his way DOWN when he takes the dirt nap. What kind of life is this? To know that you are going to hell, no matter what? Dude, what are you doing on the corner yelling, stupid? Go rob some people or some shit, what do you care? And in the event that this guy is going to hell, he is probably a liar and why the fuck would I want to listen to him in the first place? If he really does think that I am going to hell just for trying to get a hoagie on my lunch break, yet he is immune to Satan's lair, I'd say he's a pretty presumptuous fucker.
The main problem, of course, is that there are some wonderful, truly religious, truly pious people out there, who are filled with no malice, no self-righteousness. They are filled with nothing but love, compassion and good intentions. My aunt Peggy, God bless her, has dedicated her life to helping those less fortunate than she, and she has been doing it for the last 50 years. Yet, because of the insidiousness of religious hijackers (and the simple-mindedness of knee-jerk atheists), she could conceivably be lumped in with the rest of these crackpots. While that jackass is carrying around a sandwich board, Peggy is giving actual sandwiches to poor people every Christmas Eve since I've been alive. Are you gonna tell me, sandwich board man, that Peggy -- should she be happening to walk by you and your sign -- is going to hell because you say so? Do something with your pathetic life and end it, you sorry sack of shit. (Talking to the sandwich board guy, Peggy, not you!)
So what's the solution? Well just like the so-called moderate Muslim world has been far too silent in the wake of 9/11 and terrorism, Christians too have been too hesitant -- or maybe just too intimidated -- to speak up against these hateful and fascist religious groups. Most legitimate religious groups don't have a Karl Rove type big shot in their pockets to appeal to centrist religious ideals on a large scale. And as Christians, it is sometimes natural to defend other Christians due to the affiliation all the different denominations have. The best way to deal with these barbarians is to simply reject them. Whether that means refuting them, talking louder, raising more money, or simply taking a baseball bat to Fred Phelps's fucking face 60-70 times, Christians need to take religion back.
The question is, can God's will give them the guts to do it?