Monday, May 4, 2009

religion rant 2

I think I have the swine flu. Or the Mexico flu, if you prefer that nomenclature for religious reasons.

(Sidebar: if the mere word ‘swine’ makes a strain of flu offensive, could a rabbi pray over the virus under a microscope in order to render it kosher? After all, it’s not actually a pig. Can a virus be slaughtered in such a way as to comport with Talmudic law? How about this: If an Orthodox Jew were to contract something called ‘swine flu,’ presumably against his will, does that mean he failed to keep kosher? Can Hindis get cow pox? These are the questions that torment me...)

I don’t really have swine flu. I just have an unholy capacity for poor decision-making. And an unquenchable thirst.

At any rate, I awoke today to find that the laundry I had put in the dryer last night was a lump of damp, probably mildewed fabric. No big. Call the landlord, get a number for a repair service.

So as I’m on hold with the company, listening to the endless blah blah blah of the ‘Your business is important to us,’ etc. message, I hear them insert this gem: (I am paraphrasing) ‘_____ Appliance Repair values its customers and serves God in the way we conduct our business. Have a blessed day.’

Really? Seriously? This small, and admittedly fairly unimportant moment brought home for me how widespread this is, all the businesses you see these days that have a Jesus fish conspicuously placed on their signs, or in their ads, or otherwise proclaiming something along the lines of ‘A Christian-owned business.’

It sticks in my craw.

Why would someone bring up the topic of God--in a recorded message, no less--when all I want is a working dryer? Does this mean that every single employee is a Christian? And, if so, how do they find that out when they conduct interviews? 'All right, Bill, your resume looks good, your references all check out. Now I’m just gonna need to see your penis. Checking for foreskin, don’t you know...’

At first glance such advertising seems relatively harmless. To my cynical mind, it might just be a cheap advertising ploy, an attempt to rope in the Christian dollar. It comes across as a way of saying, ‘One of Us!’

Or, to the less cynical, perhaps the people who run the business are simply happy and proud of having made their ‘decision for Christ,’ as Alec Baldwin’s delightfully odious character in ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ put it.

But if you root around in the implications of choosing to advertise your business with reference to your religion, there are several problems. One is that Christ said (if you believe that such a person existed and that the people who wrote down what he supposedly said hundreds of years after the fact did so with any degree of accuracy):

"And when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to the Father which is in secret...."

There’s a teensy weensy problem of pride in these kinds of very public affirmations. And it is a particularly slithery, sinuous pride: it’s someone being proud of being so very humble. ‘Look at me! I’ve given my life over to The Lord ®!’ There’s a smugness, a passive-aggressive hostility to such declarations in the form of bumper stickers and magnetic fish that is bad enough on a personal level. But to advertise a business with this attitude smacks of a dim certainty that not just you, but your BUSINESS has been Chosen.

Which leads to the second problem: the very mention of your religion in your business advertising suggests an association between the way you make your money--a venal, mundane, and very earthly activity--with something divine and transcendent. Even if I were a Christian, I would find this offensive.

ESPECIALLY if I were a Christian.

Do you think your God gives a flying shit where I buy eggs or shoes or insulation? Is He really that petty? It’s the same concept as a football player dropping to his knees and ‘giving thanks’ after scoring a touchdown. If there were something as grand and omniscient as the God in which the religious would have us believe, He surely has better things to worry about than sports or where you buy caulk. You cheapen your own faith by suggesting otherwise.

Third, there is an implication that, because the people running the business are Christians, we should choose them over others who are not. Presumably, this means that as Christians who are ‘serving God’ somehow in the process of selling hammers or hot dogs, they are more trustworthy than others who are not Christians. The plain implication is that you, as a good Christian, should shop at Christian-run stores. But the unspoken converse of this is that you should NOT shop at a store run by Jews or Muslims or pagans or atheists. It implies that such people are untrustworthy or otherwise not good enough for you to do business with them.

The smug, mindless sense of Christians having superior morals to everyone else is something that demands to be examined, deconstructed and questioned at every turn. Examples abound.

Okay, granted, maybe I’m reading too much into this. And, too, I’ve been reading a ton of atheist manifestos recently, so these thoughts are in the forefront of my mind.

Never fear: I haven’t been ‘converted’ by the likes of Dawkins, Hitchens or Harris. I converted on my own a long time ago.

Religion is like seeing a good magician: you know something isn’t right, you can sense that something's crooked, that there is a trick you’re missing, but you just can’t put your finger on it. You can’t get away from the uneasy sense that you are being hustled. Perhaps that’s why the notion of faith figures so prominently.

The fact is that we literally have no idea how much of this sort of nonsense--destructive, divisive nonsense--is woven into American society. The assumptions we make and they very way we think and see the world are so imbued with religion--Christianity in particular--as to make us blind to it, and to the messages it really implies. To borrow an image from Joe Bageant, trying to understand religion for modern Americans is like fish trying to understand water. It is the very medium in which we swim.

And that’s what makes it so important that we come up for air whenever possible.

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