Religious freedom: Only for privileged religions, if you follow the Christian conservative rhetoric in the USA. Here, the privileged religion is Christianity. Over in most of the Middle East, it’s Islam.
They have more in common than you’d think, and could benefit well from comparing notes. Here’s America’s Best Christian, Mrs. Betty Bowers, with a summary.
You’d think Christians would be totally understanding about people being moved by whatever spirit moves them to erect large religious symbols on their property. But I have learned that statements that begin with “You’d think” often end with disappointment. No different here.
According to this NZ Herald story, Bryce Watts of Auckland is freaking out because his neighbor’s 21ft. statue of the Hindu god Shiva is visible from parts of his property. “I don’t see why we should have it poked down our throats in such a big way,” Watts actually said without any discernible irony. “It’s 10m from our boundary which is within the rules where you can build a building. It’s like, ‘bad luck, if you don’t like it, it’s your problem’. I find it really hard to believe in this day and age that this can happen.”
Yes, imagine that in this day and age someone could be so devoted to a baseless superstition that they would want to do something like build crosses across America, or the 200 ft. Branson Cross, or the my-giant-phallic-symbol-is-gianter-than-yours 230 ft. Flora-Bama project. These noble efforts are actively bilking the rubes taking tax deductible donations. Unlike the statue in Auckland, which was financed entirely by the family that built it on their own property. It was also done entirely within the town’s zoning regulations, as compared to the Brandon, MS cross which demands the right to exceed the town’s 20ft. height limit on structures by 90ft.
Maybe Mr Watts should just move to Christchurch, since all sense of irony seems to have eluded him anyway.
Pre-enlightenment, I was an Orthodox Jew. Orthodox Jewish prayer would probably strike most Christians as very odd. It consists of three prayer services a day (more on Sabbath and Holidays), and literally hundreds of pages of prescribed liturgy that must be said word for word according to which service is being done at this moment. There are time-frame restrictions as well; these may only be said until a certain time of the morning, those may not be said until an hour after noon, and then you have to wait another so many hours for the last set. Not to mention, you’d better have a pretty good command of biblical-style Hebrew (plus a side helping of Aramaic), if you want to have a prayer (heh) of knowing what you’re saying.
Improvisation was most definitely not a factor. The performance art of the kind of preachers you see on TV has always been hilarious to me. For different reasons now, but even in my misspent youth I had difficulty imagining how any of the benefits of prayer accrued to stuff you were making up on the spot. There’s so much of it already in the book! The bulk of what’s in the book is said almost silently, to yourself, and it’s pretty impressive how quickly you can zip through several full pages of it once you get some momentum going.
But you have to be paying attention! If you’re not, to some extent at least, you will lose track. If you made it to synagogue for the service, someone is at the dais marking progress and opening the communal portions in call-response fashion. You have to be ready, and know where we are in the order of things. (A Jewish prayer book is called a “Siddur” which literally* means, “set in order”.)
Outside the three or more daily services, there are literally hundreds of mini-prayers, most of them in the category called “Brachot” — blessings. These are to be recited (verbatim, of course) in response to hordes of common things that happen each day. The instant you wake up in the morning, and the last thing before you fall asleep at night. Before eating or drinking: different ones based on what kind of food or drink you’re having. After eating: based on what kind of food you just had. After going to the loo. Upon seeing a pretty tree, or a rainbow (different ones for each of those). Upon seeing a king or queen (OK some of them, not so common). If you didn’t memorize at least the most frequently used ones you were in trouble. And if you weren’t saying at least 100 of these a day, as I was taught, you were slacking.
I can’t say I miss all this; I don’t. Not a bit. But there was a benefit to it, one I don’t turn my back on, even in my godless existence today. My mind can be a noisy place, and this kind of prayer is a sure-fire way to get some quiet. Meditation doesn’t do it for me: to me that’s like telling a toddler having a tantrum, “Please stop having a tantrum now.” As opposed to finding something nearby and making it into a game, gently diverting the focus from the object of the tantrum to something else with some structure that requires enough attention to allow distractions to fall away.
Don’t get worried – my mind’s not that noisy. If it were, I think I’d have to check in to a clinic for a rest. But something structured and diverting is just the thing I often need, and music is what does the trick for me. I tend to go with an eclectic mix that includes a lot of folk, blues and classic rock, because I know the words. Then I can sing/say them along with the track, almost silently, to myself (sound familiar?). I no longer have to believe these things literally for them to calm my thought processes and help me get ready for a day of work or focus better on a task.
Here’s one (of literally hundreds!) that I find effective:
* – All uses of the word “literally” in this post are literally literal.
I thought I would do a count-down style list of reactions to these things. Part way through, someone told me about her experience with one item not on the list and I knew I had to add it.
What struck me about the experience of writing each one of these is how easy they were to deconstruct. I applied the modicum of empathy that I can summon and put myself into the mindset of the person who would say this, and then the person who might be hearing it. Given my current state as the person way more likely to hear these things than to say them, the one who says them takes the worst of it. But that doesn’t change the fact that I have been each of these people. And so to the people saying these things, I ask you to try also to put yourselves into the mindset of the ones hearing them.
“It’s all part of God’s plan” is something I have heard religious people say to people who have just suffered some very negative life event. Anything from a bad breakup, to a fire or other disaster, all the way to the death of a family member.
Unlike the other goofy statements in this series, this is not reserved for apostates and atheists. It gets sprayed around pretty indiscriminately. It might play a role in causing some people, who were wavering anyway, to leave religion entirely. So for that I suppose I should be grateful. But I can’t summon gratitude for this execrable utterance. It’s that combination of cruel, egotistical and judgemental that exemplifies for me all the very worst things about religious life.
The target of this statement is always someone who has just suffered a loss. It could be a loss of any kind; it could be a loss greater than the speaker can imagine. I have been told by a mother who lost a child that she’d had this tossed at her. In what twisted mentality was someone thinking it would be comforting to say something to her that amounts to, “Hey, you know the big guy upstairs who runs the universe? He thinks this is going great!”
Which brings me to the egotism of it. The speaker is letting you know, in no uncertain terms, that they are privy to “God’s plan”. They have seen that whole MS-Project file, and this amazingly crappy thing that has you suffering right now is right there on line 45,730,951,384. Right between “Publicly pious athlete wins game, covers spread by two points, his agent wins a cool eighty grand” and “Tornado hits Bible-Belt town, kills 12, leaves one house out of 57 standing”. The owner of that one lucky house paints “Thank you, God!” on what’s left of his roof, just to rub it in. He never liked his neighbors much, anyway.
And perhaps that’s the cruelest, nastiest thing about this bit of verbal slime. The bad thing happened to you and not to me, and that is what sparks my association of it with God’s Plan. You don’t hear people invoking Divine Intentionality on their own sufferings, just on that of their inferiors. By which they mean, pretty much everyone else.
This is #11 (bonus!) of a series covering the top ten goofy things religious people say to atheists.