I Heard They Play Speed Metal In Hell

It’s been 150 years since Charles Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species. There is, I hear, a re-release of Darwin’s classic, including a brand spankin’ new introduction co-written by the star of the switcheroo flick Like Father, Like Son, and Growing Pains, MEGACHRISTIAN Kirk Cameron.

Apparently, Darwin’s book is in the public domain, so anyone can write a version of it if they want. Kirk says that he’s doing a new intro with the intention of presenting a balanced view of Darwin’s work. Apparently a “balanced” view means saying ‘this book is bullshit’ in an introduction.

Ok, so he wouldn’t say “bullshit”.

When I was a bit younger and a church-goin’ person, I fell victim to just about the worst thing that could happen to a God-fearin’ fella. I was sitting in church one sunday morning, thumbing through my Bible (I think the sermon had to do with something in Luke), when I experienced only what I can call a “reverse revelation”.

It was at that moment when I suddenly stopped believing in God.

I can’t explain it any other way than to say that it was sudden, like a bolt of lightening from the heavens. Really, at that moment I felt like it must have felt for Saul on the road to Damascus, except for the fact that I was suddenly an atheist. Sitting in church, no less.

I didn’t feel too bad about it, though. While I was sitting there (beacuse it would have been rude to just get up and leave during a sermon), things became clearer and I finally understood. The heavy load of doubt had been lifted. I no longer felt the gulit of wrestling with my doubt because it had been revealed to me that the thing that I doubted did not exist. It was like God did me a little favor in whispering in my ear, “I’m going to tell you something, but don’t tell anyone else here. I don’t exist”.

I thought that I should have been feeling something about not believing… guilt, worry, a sense that I was doomed to hell… nope. Nothing. I didn’t feel bad about it at all. That morning while I was sitting there, receiving the most amazing news that I could have ever received in my life was the most singular moment of clarity that I had ever felt the entire time that I had even gone to church. All these years later, I still feel the same.

When it first happened, I thought that the problem might have been the church that I was going to. But each time I went to another one, the feeling was the same. I had even tried dabbling into “alternative” religious practices (yes, including Wicca, and no, it had nothing to do with that movie The Craft. But given my size and gender, Wicca would seem a natural choice). As if I were hit by the backhand of God, God said to me, “why are you insisting on doing this to yourself? I don’t exist!!” I finally had to admit to myself what I already knew.

I was an atheist.

The funny thing is, is when you make the discovery of your non-believingness, none but the most millitant atheist wants to admit that that’s what they are. Many of us cling to the badge “agnostic”, believing that it’s better to “keep our options open”, than to say that we flat-out don’t believe that there is a God. It’s better to say that one is non-practicing than to say that one is non-believing. Eventually, however, the charade catches up with us when we realize that we aren’t aganostic at all, that it’s not a matter of not believing that no major religion has got it on what God is, but a matter of the fact that we believe that there is no omnicompetent being that occupies any role in the galaxy (I decided to use a definite description instead of saying that “God does not exist” for some positivist-leaning butthead saying that I’ve made a negative existential claim, which is something that I cannot do). Still, after many years I hadn’t given up the hope of eventually believing in something. The idea of having no belief seemed like being lost, or worse yet, it smacked of disingenuity. The accusation towards many atheists is that we actually do believe in God, we’re just acting out. It’s not wanting to believe in God that the atheist is guilty of, not actually not believing in God.

But I knew what I felt. I felt that He did not exist. I had tried to get back the feeling that he did but failed. I had drifted from Christendom into agnosticism, theism, deism, and finally tried my hand at paganism. It was toolate for Pascal’s wager and I was too disillusioned to take Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith”. But something still nagged at my, dare I say, soul. It wasn’t long before I found myself with a copy of the Satanic Bible in my hands. I don’t think that the average misanthropic teen escapes high school without at least one encounter with the late Anton LaVey’s paean to the Dark Prince.

For those who are unfamiliar with LaVey’s tome to the Devil, the Satanic Bible includes the Nine Satanic Statements, the 9th of which reads: “Satan has been the best friend the church has ever had, as he has kept it in business all these years!” LaVey says that, while in his youth, he worked at a carnival, and on Saturday nights he would see the men leering at the young nubile dancers. The same men, who when they returned to the carnival grounds the next morning for the tent services, would stand next to their wives and children singing hymns to God. He saw the hypocrisy of the men who indulged their flesh on Saturday night and then begged for forgiveness on Sunday morning. LaVey says that he saw how the devil was used to manipulate people into believing that all things physical were inherently evil. But as he saw it, wanting physical pleasure comes natural to people, so how can what is natural be sinful?

After reading LaVey’s book, I didn’t come away an atheist (namely because LaVey’s “satanism” is more akin to secular humanism than actual diabolism. So one conceivably, can be a Satanic atheist), but I did see one big point to consider: namely, that LaVey’s Ninth Satanic Statement works in reverse.

It’s easy to say that God has been the atheist’s (humanist, satanist) best friend for all these yers, as he is the one that they’ve been railing about for all this time!

*although I know at this point that the Wiccans would say that since their religion has nothing to do with the Christian God, that he is not their best friend. If you don’t believe this, just cruise on up to your local Wiccan and tell her (because it will almost always be a her) that Wiccans are like devil worshippers. If you don’t know how to spot a Wiccan, just look for the “goddess” sized young lady with the flowing hair (she’ll most likely look like a heavier-set Tori Amos) and the gossamer dress if Wiccans worship the devil. Sit back and get ready to hear about the 3-fold rule and the “burning times”.

After reading Christopher Hitchens’ god is not great, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Julian Baggini’s Atheism: A Very Short Introduction, Russell’s “Why I Am Not A Christian”, and a handful of stuff by Michael Shermer, I realized that while I may be an atheist, I am a very Christian atheist. I realize that an atheist is only an atheist if he does not believe that there is no god. So far as our culture is concerned, that god that I maintain does not exist, is a Christian one. And like Christopher Hitchens, the god that I believe does not exist is not only Christian, but decidedly Protestant as well. I quote Hitchens, “I know enough about all religions to know that I would always be an infidel at all times and in all places, but my particular atheism is a Protestant atheism”. As a product of the Protestant tradition, my atheistic values tend to echo exactly what I learned in Sunday school. I shouldn’t kill or steal, or bear false witness. I believe that hard work will be rewarded, and that if one has a relationship with god, it is a personal one… And that the Pope is a sham. I cannot escape my Christian values even if I try to leave them behind. I find myself quoting Jesus on the subject of taxes or who we should treat the poor (heck, I even found myself referring to the feeding of the multitude when discussing health care). I still celebrate Christmas and prefer to hear traditional christmas hymns to the contemporary Christmas jingles by Michael Bolton or Boyz to Men (although I do like Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime”). I say “bless you” when someone sneezes, and I still write the word God with a capital G. And unlike Richard Dawkins, I wholeheartedly disagree that raising children in a religion is the same as child abuse. I always say that my hypothetical children are Christians. They gotta get their morals from somewhere, right?

We are all influenced, in one way or another, by the dominant culture. And whether I like it or not, I live in a Christian dominated/influenced culture. I can choose whether I accept the fact and move on, or whether I waste time protesting putting up “happy holidays” signs at Target. This is why I am, as I tell my friends, the most Christian atheist I know.

Although I find those who believe in God a little delusional, I understand that I can’t be rid of him. I may say that I know that he doesn’t exist, but there is a world out there full of people who believe that he does. And so far, I’m outnumbered billions to one. Nietzsche may have been correct when he wrote that God is dead, but like Elvis, there are still a whole hell of alot of people out there who go around singing his songs.

Scottish People Scare Me: On A Good Reason Why I Ain’t Ever Goin’ To Scotland Or, A Problem Of Conflicting Moralities In "The Wicker Man"

POLICE SERGEANT HOWIE ¬†flies off to a remote Scottish isle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. During his investigation, he finds that the natives of the quiet Scottish hamlet are a bit more than odd — they’re pagans! What follows during the next 90 minutes is public group sex, people spontaneously breaking out into song, nude women crying in grave yards, schoolchildren singing odes to phallic symbols, naked flashdancing, foreskins in jars — ultimately culminating in Sgt. Howie being roasted alive in a giant rattan action figure (so the crops will grow).

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is The Wicker Man.

This gem from 1973, starring Edward Woodward, bears the rare distinction of being the only movie in film history that Rod Stewart tried to get banned — and not because it’s a bad movie. It all has to do with Britt Ekland and some dancing….

YES. THIS PICTURE IS CENSORED.  THIS IS A FAMILY SHOW.

YES. THIS PICTURE IS CENSORED.
THIS IS A FAMILY SHOW.

Anyway, Sgt. Howie, played by Woodward, is sent to investigate the disappearance of a young girl named Rowan Morrison. When Sgt. Howie arrives, he is met by several locals who, besides being confoundedly stupid, insist that the girl is not a resident of the island. They’ve never heard of her, they say. But Howie is as nosy as he is persistent, and he continues to search for young Rowan, despite the fact that everyone on the island, including the woman who is Rowan’s alleged mother, claims that they do not know the girl.

PICTURED: SGT. HOWIE AND A COUPLE OF INCREDIBLY STUPID VILLAGERS ..... OR ARE THEY?

PICTURED: SGT. HOWIE AND A COUPLE OF INCREDIBLY STUPID VILLAGERS
….. OR ARE THEY?

As Howie searches for the missing girl, he finds that the residents of Summerisle are pagans who worship the old gods and reject Christianity (this fact offends Howie, who is a Christian). Howie begins to suspect that the island’s May Day ritual may be more than mere re-enactment, but a full-scale human sacrifice made to appease the gods. Howie suspects that Rowan is not missing, but intended to be the isle’s offering.

After a game of cat and mouse (I really hate that cliche), Howie finds that it is he who is the intended sacrifice, and he is given up to the gods — burned alive inside the Wicker Man.

IT COULD HAVE BEEN WORSE. IT COULD HAVE BEEN NICHOLAS CAGE'S ACTING.... ER -- I MEAN BEES.

IT COULD HAVE BEEN WORSE. IT COULD HAVE BEEN NICHOLAS CAGE’S ACTING…. ER — I MEAN BEES.

The Film’s protagonist, Sgt. Howie, is a Christian. Howie, as a modern man thrown into the strange world of paganism, is intended to represent the audience. The audience, meaning us, and Howie are products of Christendom. We’ve been raised with, whether we’ve accepted Christianity or not, Christian morality. Our collective Christian sensibilities tell us that paganism, in particular, pagan practices that call for blood sacrifices, is not only a useless practice, but morally reprehensible as well.

MAYBE NOT MORALLY REPREHENSIBLE BUT DEFINITELY A CRIME AGAINST FASHION

MAYBE NOT MORALLY REPREHENSIBLE BUT DEFINITELY A CRIME AGAINST FASHION

The audience, as well as Sgt. Howie would regard the practices on Summerisle as heathen and blasphemous according to our Christian perspective. Our God, the Christian God, as Howie proclaims, is the “true God”. Howie calls the religion of Summerisle “fake”, and demands to know why the children have “never heard of Jesus”. As people raised with (or at least in the presence of ) the Christian faith, we can understand Howie’s outrage. And we also share Howie’s disgust when he discovers that the Summerislanders intend to perform ritual human sacrifice.

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST CLUE THAT THERE WAS SOMETHING WRONG WITH THESE PEOPLE, SGT. HOWIE?

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST CLUE THAT THERE WAS SOMETHING WRONG WITH THESE PEOPLE, SGT. HOWIE?

But, the residents of Summerisle have a different point of view. When Sgt. Howie meets Lord Summerisle, played by Christopher Lee ( the first man I usually think of when I think of a Scotsman), Summerisle explains to Howie that his grandfather, in an attempt to rekindle the spirit of the people living on the island and cure them of their apathy, brought back the old gods.

images (15)

The people, along with the local flora, flourished. The ethic, Lord Summerisle tells Howie, is to love and fear nature, to rely on it, and to “please it when necessary”. Summerisle tells Howie that the Christian God is not worshipped on his island because the Christian God failed to help the people. “He’s dead,” Summerisle says. He had his chance and blew it. When Howie, furious at Summerisle’s unrepentant paganism proclaims that Summerisle is a pagan, Summerisle responds, ” A heathen conceivably, but not I hope an unenlightened one”.

images (16)

But Howie sees Summerisle and his people as just that — unenlightened.

Unenlightened people do stuff like this:

And things like this:

The people of Summerisle, Howie thinks, are backwards, savage, and barbaric.

SGT. HOWIE'S FUTILE ATTEMPT AT.... WHATEVER

SGT. HOWIE’S FUTILE ATTEMPT AT…. WHATEVER

I guess it’s a lot like spending a night in any city in Nevada outside of Las Vegas.

THIS IS PRETTY MUCH WHAT MOST OF NEVADA LOOKS LIKE

THIS IS PRETTY MUCH WHAT MOST OF NEVADA LOOKS LIKE

Howie knows that Summerisle knows that bringing back the old gods did not make his island prosperous, but correctly using the island’s volcanic soil to raise crops that would grow in that environment saved the island and its people. If Summerisle is not an unenlightened pagan, Howie knows, then certainly the people of Summerisle are, as they believe that sacrifice will please the gods and renew their harvests.

THIS IS ALL PERFECTLY REASONABLE BEHAVIOR

THIS IS ALL PERFECTLY REASONABLE BEHAVIOR

As he is being led off to his date with the Wicker Man, Howie tells the islanders that burning him will not bring back their failed crops. He says that, if the crops fail again, that no sacrifice other than the Lord Summerisle himself will appease their gods. As Howie burns in the Wicker Man, he sings the Psalm of David ( Psalm 23), while the people of Summerisle, led by Summerisle, sing a triumphant pagan ‘let’s roast a cop in the fire’ song.

This song in particular:

By the way, there really is a Summerisle located off the coast of Scotland. I’m not sure if the events depicted in the film are representative of events that actually go on there, but rest assured I’m not going there any time soon to find out.*

This brings us to a very important question: what are we to do when we are confronted with competing moral theories? In particular, how do we decide moral rightness when each side claims that their side is morally correct? What do we do if we have, as in this case, competing religious claims?

Ok, let’s take out the fact that Lord Summerisle knows that paganism is wacked. Let’s say that he, and the people of the island, truly believe that performing human sacrifices will bring back their failed crops. Their gods, they believe, demand that they do. If they do not obey, they believe, the gods will get angry with them and kill their crops, causing the deaths of hundreds of people. So, let’s stick Sgt. Howie in the mix. And, like the people of Summerisle, Howie believes that his religion prohibits human sacrifice. His religion, he believes, will punish those who unlawfully shed the blood of an innocent.

ACCORDING TO SGT. HOWIE THIS DEFINITELY IS NOT ALLOWED

ACCORDING TO SGT. HOWIE THIS DEFINITELY IS NOT ALLOWED

Each claims that their religion is morally correct. Each operates from a mandate from God or their gods — including potential punishment if each does not obey. How are we to solve the ethical dilemma? How are we to determine which side is morally correct? Is doing so possible? If there is, which ethical system can/should we appeal to to settle the difference?

religiouswarsigngif

Usually, when we are faced with ethical dilemmas, even when we pull out the old thought experiment, we consider ethical dilemmas one theory at a time. So, for instance, if everyone in this situation were Kantians, we could easily draw some conclusion as to which side is morally correct. we might say that ritual human sacrifice is murder and that the pagans have no right, morally speaking, to perform their evil deed. Moreover, Sgt. Howie is an unwilling participant, and to sacrifice him is using him as a mere means to their end.

Problem solved. We wipe off our hands, and pat ourselves on the back after winning the ethics bowl round.

But we can make such an easy decision here. Each side says that it is their moral imperative to act as they do. So now what do we do? Let’s look at another theory. Let’s say that this time, everyone is a utilitarian. The utilitarian says that we must only act in such a way that will bring the greatest good for the greatest number.

Ok. We’ve got Sgt. Howie on one side saying that the sacrifice won’t work. The crops are going to fail, no matter what, and if they fail next year, no sacrifice other than Lord Summerisle himself will do. So, according to Howie, performing the sacrifice will be pretty bad for everyone. So, let’s give benefits a plus five, and the negatives a minus twenty.

THIS IS WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE WHEN PHILOSOPHERS CALCULATE THIS KIND OF STUFF. EXCITING STUFF, HUH?

THIS IS WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE WHEN PHILOSOPHERS CALCULATE THIS KIND OF STUFF. EXCITING STUFF, HUH?

So, after hearing Howie trying to worm out of doing something beneficial for his island, Lord Summerisle says that, if they commit the sacrifice the crops will grow, and the people will prosper. And, Summerisle explains, Howie will benefit as well.

SEE? LORD SUMMERISLE IS HAPPY.

SEE? LORD SUMMERISLE IS HAPPY.

Summerisle tells Howie that he will join with the forces of the universe and sit at the right hand of the gods. And even from Howie’s Christian perspective, Summerisle says, Howie benefits from having a martyr’s death. So Summerisle says the benefits are all plusses — plus twenty, plus twenty, and plus fifty for Howie.

Fear not, Sgt. Howie. Pain is only temporary. Heaven is forever.

Well, this isn’t working. Somehow it seems that Summerisle beats Howie. In fact, Summerisle claims that, if Howie participates, he benefits more than everyone else. Now, the obvious problem here, is these claims, like any utilitarian claim, remain speculative (at best). We don’t know whose god (or God or gods) is/are right. There’s a chance that Summerisle’s gods are the “real” gods. In that case, if we follow Howie’s advice, we’ve done more harm than good. So, is there anything out there that can help us?

NOPE. PRAYING WON'T HELP.

NOPE. PRAYING WON’T HELP.

We might want to abandon, at least for now, any ethical system that takes a definitive stand on rightness or wrongness. So let’s try moral relativism.

According to the relativist, different cultures have different standards of right and wrong (cultural relativism). From that fact we conclude — since every culture has a different standard for right and wrong, there exists no universal standard of right and wrong. Therefore, we cannot objectively measure the rightness or wrongness of a given act. Or something like that.

Sorry. Nicholas Cage popped up again.

Man, he’s everywhere, isn’t he?

Well, this gets us absolutely nowhere. All a relativist can say is that Sgt. Howie has one set of morals and the people of Summerisle have another. They’re both right. But unfortunately for Howie, he can’t both be burned in the Wicker Man and as far away from that damned island as possible at the same time. So we’re back at square one. The natives are lighting their torches and we’ve got to make a decision, quick. How do we decide which is morally right?

Luckily for us in this case, there actually is a way to solve the dilemma. I mentioned before that we should forget that Summerisle knew that paganism is a load of poo. Well, that’s our cheat. And even though we are secretly rooting for the pagans, (let’s face it, Howie was rude and nosy and he deserved to die) but we know that Howie is dying for nothing. What makes matters worse is the fact that Howie himself knows this as well.

This happens.

And then this happens…..

We know what the people of Summerisle do not know. We know that Summerisle knows the real reason why his grandfather brought back the old gods. And because of this, we know that sacrificing Howie is wrong. It’s wrong because Summerisle is not only using Howie to further his own ends, but he is also using the people of Summerisle for his own benefit. He is relying on their ignorance ot maintain control over them. Although Summerisle claims that he loves his people, we can see that this may not be the case. He loves ruling over them. He enjoys manipulating Sgt. Howie into falling prey to his plan to use him as a sacrifice ( notice that he did not use one of the island’s natives but a mainlander). In this case, unlike so many we see in the real world, it is easy to tell. The sacrifice is wrong. Thankfully the pagan gods of Sumerisle and screenwriters make it all so easy to figure it out.

If only real philosophy were that easy……