Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Religion Color Experiment (1 of 4)


Parents: you wouldn't do this...
Daughter: “I love green. Green is my favorite color.”
Father: “NO. Your favorite color is purple.”
Daughter: “But Dad, I don’t like purple. I like gree-”
...So don't do this you do this:
Daughter: “Dad, what happens to us after we die?”
Father: “I’m so glad you asked, sweetie! Allow me to now parrot what my parents told me as a child, thus perpetuating 2,000 years worth of bizarre, backwards, ridiculous beliefs that no one in their right mind would believe unless an authority figure taught it to them while they were young.”
Here is a popular view on religion, presented by perhaps the second funniest web comic on the whole interweb, TheOatmeal (<----the highlighted word "TheOatmeal" links to the original version of the above comic. Warning: TheOatmeal often uses hyperbole for comic effect). It basically says that religion is like a color, an arbitrary preference. Some cultures happened to all agree on favorite colors, maybe red, white and blue in the US of A. But it might just as easily have been black, yellow and red if you were born in Germany.


Let’s run that experiment. What if Christianity was exactly like the color red? Let us imagine that there are people who believe that red is not just a good color, but the True color. We will call them Red Colorists.


The Red Colorists top minds begin to investigate red as a color, reasons for preferring red, and the essence of redness. This process consumes undeniably the best minds of most of European history, as the Red Colorists find the subject of Red-ology so deep its depths cannot be plumbed.

Red missionaries travel throughout the world, sacrificing their careers and their families to spread the good news about the color red, red being the only one by which men might be saved. They spend decades as anthropologists and linguists translating the Gospel of Red into the native tongues of those who like green and purple and yellow. They work so hard because they believe every person should be able to read about red in their own “heart language.” Those who convert exclaim, “I’ve loved blue my whole life, but now I see I’ve been living a lie! The arguments of the Red Colorists have persuaded me! Red is the one, true color!”

Those who prefer red are often persecuted, and even threatened with death. Others, who also take their color seriously make threats, “If you don’t say that yellow is your favorite color, we will kill you!” But the threats do nothing; the Red Colorists refuse to change their preference, or even pretend to change so that they don’t get killed. Some get killed. But it doesn’t stop them. Their love for the other colorists is so intense that they are willing to die so that others might prefer red.


What is the result of treating Christianity like the color red? It makes Christians seem nuttier than a jar of Skippy.  And for some, it may help communicate how crazy religion seems. For those on the fence, maybe it’s a silly enough story to be laughed at. But it doesn’t matter. I tell the story to raise the question: Why don’t we die for our favorite color?

As is always true, when your theory can’t explain something, it might be time to change it. If a guy has the theory, “She wants me sooooo bad,” it may not adequately explain her statement: “Get away from me, creeper!” A new theory is needed. And so it is with the color theory of religion. Even if it is true in part, it doesn’t explain important pieces (like the whole dying-for-a-color part).

The trouble with the word religion is that it’s hard to define. Like the coach section of an airplane, the word ‘religion,’ mashes together very different kinds of people into an identical seat size, some of whom definitely don’t fit. Consider the case of Confucianism and Christianity. Both are concerned about ethics. Also, you may astutely note that both begin with the letter ‘C.’ But that’s about where the similarities end. 

Confucianism focuses on the present world, barely commenting on metaphysics. Christianity is concerned with both, caring that God’s will be done “on earth, as in heaven.” Christianity does a lot of other things that Confucianism doesn’t, like congregational worship, and telling a common narrative. Confucianism seems well described by the color theory; it is closer to a culture or a civilization. It is a beautiful ethical code, and it seems like it works really well in China. But proselytization really doesn’t make much sense.

The color theory just doesn’t work when it comes to doctrine. And Christianity is really the only religion that has doctrine as a central part, the only religion where belief (orthodoxy) is more important and even separable from behaviors (orthopraxy), practices and culture [1]. Confucianism is a Chinese set of ideas and isn’t really trans-plantable. And even if it were, there’s not really much motivation to move it. “It works for us; whatever you’re doing probably works for you.” Judaism is similar but specific to a scattered race rather than a fixed country. But, like a fat man on a coach seat, Christianity’s doctrine spills out of the “religion is a color” coach seat.

When we enter into the realm of ideas, we have crossed an important threshold. When religion is something that exists only inside one brain, it cannot be shared. My preference for blue is irrational. There is no reason I can identify why blue is a great color, a color better than red and orange. I cannot make you empathize with my liking the color blue; you can sympathize with my words, “I like blue,” but even if your favorite color is also blue, you cannot understand my blue preference. But then let’s suppose I move into the common world that we both share when I say, “The color blue is made by photons of wavelengths 450-495nm.” Then you can agree with me or disagree with me. When I say “Blue is [something],” then I’m talking about something that exists in your world and mine.

And Christianity began to say, “God is Love” “God is Just.” When it crossed that threshold, its ideas entered the marketplace or arena of ideas. They must compete like all other ideas. Ideas can appeal to personal narrative (i.e. “I used Sham-Wow, and it was amazing!”), or they can appeal to testable facts (“Sham-Wow can hold 432 times its weight in water!!!”).

But if they are to survive, they need to make appeals in ways that purely subjective things do not. Like a marketplace, ideas must be persuasive to be passed on. Richard Dawkins, Atheist extraordinaire, says that ideas are like viruses. He calls them memes, and those that are able to transmit from one person to another succeed. And what idea has been more successful than Christianity?

[1] This was first pointed out to me by Christian de-convert, Stephen Prothero, in his book God is Not One. I had Christio-centrically assumed that everyone in every religion had doctrine as I had. In so doing, I was imposing my Christian view on religion on religions that didn’t have orthodoxy. It was like walking into the House of Representatives and asking to speak to the king; the Speaker might be the closest approximation, but I wrongly assumed that every government was like my own, and that he had ultimate power when he did not. Hinduism no more has Orthodoxy than a Democracy has a king. In the next section, I’ll give more examples and consequences of this difference.

==> Onward to Color, Culture and Christianity (2 of 4)

No comments:

Post a Comment