John Walker's Electronic House

Science Vs Faith Vs The Deluded Sociopathy Of Religion

by on May.18, 2013, under Rants

This evening I went along to a talk, part of Bristol’s Festival Of Ideas, by geneticist Steve Jones. He’s recently published a book, The Serpent’s Promise, in which he reinterprets the Bible as a science book. It’s not as spurious as it sounds, although I’ve not read the book yet – Jones is an atheist, and was interested to investigate whether there’s any science to be found in the books, and to reinterpret the pseudo-science and historical claims it makes. Which sounds tremendous, so Laura and I went along.

The talk itself, in which Jones answered questions from a host, was a good time. It was a touch lacking in depth, a little heavy on the “buy the book in the foyer after” and a little light on the meat. But an enjoyable evening nonetheless.

One particular comment really stood out to me. It was a response to a question about whether religion made people happier, in which he explained that the data he’s seen showed that no, in fact religion fails to make people happier. Those who identify as agnostic or atheist tend to identify as happier.

And I realised a part of where this debate is going so wrong. Obviously the “Science vs Religion” discussions are far too often between those who wish to “oppose science in the name of religion” and “oppose religion in the name of science”, as if either were anything less than mad. But it’s understandable! Because the religiosity that’s presenting itself is one that absolutely should be attacked by those of a rational, scientific mind.

During Jones’ talk, it became very apparent that the version of Christianity he’s experienced, and the version that others have expressed to him, absolutely merits the dismissal and refuting it receives. A Christian doctrine that proselytises on the basis of offering “happiness” is fundamentally unrelated to the faith on which they claim to be based. Christianity sold as everything from a means to escape the pits of hell to a self-help cure for the lacklustre is a heretical misinterpretation of the most serious magnitude. This is perpetuated by both the intentionally malevolent, usually with a financial and/or power-based incentive, and the ideologically naive, people who very genuinely want to help spread something they believe to be good. This “Christianity”, the one that makes people happier, entirely merits the scorn it receives from the scientific community, and absolutely deserves to be found as lacking under any scrutiny.

It’s just, that’s not Christianity.

In fact, it’s such a warped understanding of the faith that it becomes ultimately destructive. It makes perfect sense that societies with this as their basis – and indeed so many Christian nations are – should be the most unstable, the most cruel, the least socially advanced. Because it’s a religion of self-fulfilment, of achievement over others, of intrinsic hedonism, and ultimately of selfishness. Whether the basis of your religion is to protect yourself from some non-specific eternal damnation, or to reach some sense of internal enlightenment and satisfaction, it’s narcissism, and utterly without basis in the teachings of Jesus. It by its nature is inherently “them” and “us”, insiders and outsiders, acceptable and unacceptable. It breeds inequality – it strives for it.

Christianity never offers “happiness”. Such a spurious and delusional notion would be meaningless to offer anyway. To achieve a state of fixed happiness would require the complete abandoning of any notions of sympathy, empathy or social awareness – in other words, it is to be a sociopath. To exist in such a way that the horrors affecting others no longer impact on your state of mind is to be dangerously delusional, and deeply hideous. Anything that promises you “happiness” is automatically to be deeply feared.

Christianity, in fact, promises a greater lack of this notion of happiness. When people approached Jesus and asked him what they needed to do to follow him, he invariably responded by saying, “Give up the thing that makes you happy.” This wasn’t self-flagellation, or some cult-like stripping of someone until they were dependent upon the leader. This was, simply, sacrifice. It was about taking away the meaningless trinkets that delude you into believing you are content, and facing the brutal reality of life, such that you would be finally in a position to do something about it. Jesus didn’t say, “Follow me and you’ll feel better.” He said, “Take up your cross and follow me.” That is, pick up the instrument of torture on which you will ultimately die in misery and pain, and follow me. Who’s up for following now?! This Christianity is about learning the joy of responding to suffering. It is a rejection of “happiness”, “contentment”, “wholeness”, or however else it’s sold, in favour of experiencing love as a transforming action.

So the question at the beginning of it all begins to look so farcical. Christianity is questioned as to whether it is “really succeeding” for people, by a measure of whether it makes them more happy. And is found lacking. Of course it is, although mostly for the worst reason. Mostly it’s because people who have been sold this heretical religion, this Christianity that cures your melancholy and plasters a smile upon your face, and it cannot possibly succeed. Because it’s dishonest, unrealistic, and plain grotesque. It’s a lie. Those who join in with the hope of happiness are certainly going to feel let down. Of course they’re not going to be demonstrably more “happy” than the secular.

Let alone those who respond to Christianity on the basis of what it actually offers: a stark, painful truth. To follow Jesus, to “be a Christian”, is to live a life in which you are fundamentally aware of inequality, injustice, and cruelty, such that you are in a position to respond to it. To see every human being as created and loved by God is not to see a world made of rainbow-sprouting clouds and especially bouncy bunnies. It’s to see so many of those created and loved beings living in horror, and to feel the weight of that. It’s to sacrifice to option to dismiss the poorest around you as “scum” or “scroungers”. It’s to sacrifice the ability to delude yourself into believing that the brown kids with flies on their eyes aren’t actually the same as you. It’s to sacrifice the false comfort of calling paedophiles “monsters” and dehumanising the most abhorrent amongst us. Is that going to make anyone happier? Of course not.

(I want to stress that Christianity is obviously not a necessity for someone to recognise the horrors in the world, and nor is it at all necessary to be someone who lovingly responds to it. The point is that it is required for those calling themselves Christians to see and respond, if they are to have any understanding of the faith they purport to live in.)

(I also want to stress that living with a Christian faith isn’t abject misery. It is also to live knowing the love of God, which is fairly fundamental. It’s just, if someone experiences that love, and then isn’t driven to damn well go fix the stuff that’s wrong, to have a greater perspective of just how wrong the wrong things are, then they’re not following Jesus at all.)

The question asked of Steve Jones tonight should have been, “Do you think that religion is succeeding in making Christians appropriately unhappy?” And Steve Jones should have been able to respond, “No! It isn’t! It is taught as either self-help or as a consequence of fear, and exists in the self-delusion that it is achieving anything in doing so, ignorant of all rational, scientific understanding of the human condition.”

Of course the secular scientific community thinks that Christianity is demonstrably failing in its apparently intended goals, even before they get to the impossible and unproductive discussions of attempting to disprove the unprovable. And of course such a deluded, reactionary, and ultimately ignorant religion reacts to the scientific community with fear and hate – they can barely cope with maintaining their own façade of “happiness”, let alone with these other people poking at it from the outside.

Meanwhile there is a Christianity being practised by very many that has no aspirations toward delusions of happiness, and funnily enough also isn’t driven to distraction by arguing against those discovering the wonder of the cosmos, the phenomena of genetics, the impossible joy of the atom, the mysteries of string theory, the issues of global climate change, and the extraordinary, beautiful nature of evolution.


23 Comments for this entry

  • Obnox

    “It was about taking away the meaningless trinkets that delude you into believing you are content, and facing the brutal reality of life, such that you would be finally in a position to do something about it. Jesus didn’t say, “Follow me and you’ll feel better.” He said, “Take up your cross and follow me.” That is, pick up the instrument of torture on which you will ultimately die in misery and pain, and follow me. Who’s up for following now?! This Christianity is about learning the joy of responding to suffering. It is a rejection of “happiness”, “contentment”, “wholeness”, or however else it’s sold, in favour of experiencing love as a transforming action.”

    I welcome the practice of rejecting a hollow and artificial promise of contentment, but aren’t the correctives you propose also motivated by a desire to attain a contentment that may, in fact, prove equally unreal? Realistically, “joy through suffering” is as dangerously simplistic a method as any other. How much suffering is appropriate, and in the absence of clear insight from on high, who has the last word on that?

  • John Walker

    I perhaps wasn’t clear enough. It’s not about “joy through suffering”, but rather “joy through responding to suffering”. It’s not about sacrificing until you experience misery – it’s about removing that which prevents your seeing reality, such that you can respond to reality. It’s altruistic in its aims, a goal to feel the weight of the suffering of others in order to respond to it. That may make you feel better/good about yourself/etc, and clearly there’s an impossible debate to be had there, but it’s not the incentive.

    So no, it’s not about “how much suffering is appropriate?”, but rather, “how much ignoring the suffering of others is inappropriate?”

  • Marc Forrester

    John, I’ve toyed with the idea of asking you this before, but this seems like an ideal opportunity. After reading this piece, it seems like your answer might have a shape that fits inside my brain, so: What is your interpretation of the central event of Christianity, the crucifixion? What does ‘Jesus died to save us from Sin’ actually mean, from a non-second-century-goatherd point of view?

  • Urthman (@gndwyn)

    This is very, very well put, Mr. Walker. Thanks. This especially:

    It’s not about “joy through suffering”, but rather “joy through responding to suffering.”

  • Jack

    Brilliant article John. Very well said.

  • Zach

    I wasn’t sold at first, but it got better and better. Good article, thanks.

  • John Walker

    Marc – my understanding is that it’s about the necessity for unblemished purity to be in the presence of God’s unblemished purity. In the crucifixion, Jesus takes on all the imperfections (what the word “sin” more accurately translates to) of mankind, such that they/we get a free pass to the presence of God. It’s God sacrificing himself, in a sense, in order to let us be with him. It was also, according to the Christian mythology, the time in which Christ defeats Satan, “conquers hell”. I think the two are likely the same at their core – they’re about providing humanity with the freedom to choose to be with God after death.

  • Obnox

    “it’s about removing that which prevents your seeing reality, such that you can respond to reality.”

    OK, thanks for responding. I guess my only other query, then, is one you already address to an extent in your piece, which is why one needs to be Christian to adopt this kind of thinking. Surely the Bible’s rather questionable textual history represents an insurmountable obstacle here? But that’s getting into “science vs religion” again, I suspect, which may be a topic for another day.

  • Obnox

    Just to clarify, when I talk about the Bible being an obstacle, I mean to “removing that which prevents your seeing reality”.

  • Brice Gilbert

    Agree entirely with your point about happiness requiring one to be a sociopath. At least the way the world is now. I think it’s entirely plausible we could get to a point where our levels of happiness are very high. I personally don’t believe Christianity is required to achieve this and would prefer a secular moral philosophy that everyone can demonstrate the logic in, but I would find myself hard pressed to find anything outside of metaphysics that we would disagree on.

  • Tom

    Why does Jesus ask us to give up the things we enjoy most? I don’t see why one cannot respond to the suffering of others without self-mortification as a pre-requisite. If happiness is worth striving for and promoting in others, then it’s worth promoting in ourselves as well.
    Is Mr Walker a practicing Christian?

  • John Walker

    I didn’t mention “the things we enjoy most”. I said “the things that make us happy,” explaining these being the things that distract us from perceiving and responding to reality.

    Yes, I am attempting to be a Christian. You can ask your questions to me directly, this being my blog and all!

  • mister k

    This is your christianity, and it certainly jibes to an extent with my appreciation of what Jesus appears to be talking about in the Bible. That said, the Bible is longer than just the new testament.. is the take away from this really to search for our way of action from just Matthew Mark Luke and John and enjoy the good stories in the rest of the book? I don’t think thats utterly illegitmate (and I also don’t think its quite what you do), but I’m not sure its more legitimate than being an “old testament” Christian either.

    I don’t know, sometimes the concept of what it means to be a christian feels so diluted as to lack meaning. Most Christians will probably agree on some of the fundementals at least (Christ died for our sins, and he is in some way God, who created everything), but what that belief means in the way they practice their life is just so different. I am certain that many of those who spend a great deal of their spare time and effort into campaigning against abortion think they are being good christians, just as those who go off to help shelter the homeless do, even if they can have massive arguments about each others beliefs.

    This shouldn’t matter, if I hadn’t encountered Christians who up rated individuals in their estimation simply because of their belief (this came up in a conversation about a toy shop owner, for crying out loud. The woman in question was probably unaware of my own unbelief)

  • Stahlwerk

    Thank you John, for this very well written and interesting post. As one who can’t stand the institution church, but strive to adhere to “real” Christian morality, your words ring especially true, but I wanted to add the following. I see a lot of this promise of happiness echoed in how we “westerners” perceive other religions and faith, especially Buddhism, which is being marketed to us as the smiling face of the Dalai Lama, when in fact the fundamental teachings of Buddhism begin with “All of life is suffering”, and then working towards altruism from there. (Could have grossly simplified that. IANAB)

  • Marc Forrester

    If I’m understanding the implication here, God lived as a human and died in fear and agony in order to take on the imperfections of the human soul, fixing a fundamental incompatibility between herself and her creation?

  • Jambe

    I like the notion that ego should be, in some measure, overcome. I think it’s healthy to fight the urge to conceive of oneself as a neatly-discrete, straightforwardly-demarcated individual. “I’m a special snowflake” ideas lead to narcissism when focused on too intently.

    Some people (Christians included) are so inward-facing that they lack much in the way of suffering-attuned compassion. Right? Consider a related notion: some people (Christians included) spend so much time and effort trying to unambiguously determine what Jesus said and meant that they, too, lack (or lose!) much of that compassion.

    Tangentially, the morals one can draw from the suffering-attunement of compassionate Christianity might not be super-different from the morals one can glean from a Buddhist conception of dukkha. See:

  • sinister agent

    It’s interesting to read about your take on the “jesus died for our sins!” thing, because as a recovering Catholic, I think it’s a major stumbling block of christian teaching, and I didn’t even begin to understand it in any way until I was 25. I won’t go into details, but several people close to me did a series of terrible things, and rather than expose them (I had reasons, long story) or attack, I kept my head up, did the right thing, took the punishment their bullshit had caused.

    It was when I got out of there and had some time to process it all that I had a minor revelation. I’m not trying to say I AM JESUS, but rather, from the perspective of the moment I was in, I think I got it. Simply put, there was a balance to be paid. When someone does something awful, someone suffers for it, and more often than not, it’s not that person. But someone does. And sometimes it’s the one person who was doing the right thing all along – and that’s how it is. That’s how it has to be if you want to do good things. And you have to do good things to be a christian.

    I can see the theological case for this being a religious concept, and a god being involved, sure – I don’t believe in all that, but I can see the theory. But I think even without that, I can kind of respect the “died for our sins” idea in a way 12 years of Catholic school never even attempted to adequately analyse or explain.

    TL;DR – Religion becomes fascinating and often runs parallel with ethics if you just ponder it as a philosophical concept. Even things often spouted as mindless dogma by wretched sadists and crooks can nonetheless have ethical value. Even Jesus.

  • sinister agent

    Oh, and I meant to add: THAT is why JC was the definitive Christian (tautological necessity aside, of course) – he paid the balance for the ultimate sin of condemning and murdering god, or, if that’s too much to swallow, of killing an absurdly good man for nothing.

    That’s why sacrifice is the christian ideal. It’s suffering even though you’re doing good, and getting up afterwards, but not for revenge. Because that is what good people do, religious or not.

  • Jack

    And come back stronger than a powered-up Pacman.

  • Bowden Nthani

    And important thing to note to start with is that God is beyond infinte. He does not “think” as a man does and therefore to quantify him using human measures is unfair to anybody pondering his existence/nonexistence…
    Also, it doesn’t make sense for somebody who doesnt understand Christianity to argue against it – on what basis then, do you obtain all the smart points against God?

  • Pod

    Bowden Nthani , who are you talking to, exactly?

  • Bowden Nthani

    Nobody specific… Simply an important point to note

  • motorwayne

    Nice discussion.