Religion Pt. 2

I watched Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life with my girlfriend recently. It wasn’t quite brilliant, and it definitely could’ve benefited from more of a discernable narrative that would’ve helped me understand why Sean Penn was wandering around aimlessly in the desert for half the movie. But I admired its ambition. It’s nice to see a movie nowadays that really tries to make you think, you know?

And what did it get me thinking about? Well, other than making me wonder how Brad Pitt has time to film movies anymore while also having to raise his 189 kids, it once again got me pondering, you know, God and stuff. Malick’s film touches on an eternally fretted-over theme: the enormity of the cosmos versus the comparative smallness and insignificance of our mortal lives on earth. When one of the characters dies young, his family grapples with the tragedy as the director casts sweeping camera angles up toward the sky, as a voiceover implores to the Creator, “Where were you?”

Yeah, where were you? Now, a common argument that atheists make is to point out all the bad things that happen in the world (terrorist attacks, tsunamis, new U2 albums) and ask the faithful why God, if he is indeed all-knowing and all-powerful, doesn’t stop them all from happening. It’s a decent point, and always results in the stock answer, “God works in mysterious ways,” as if God has some sick, twisted super-complex plan for everyone in which a 12-year old girl getting raped and murdered in an alley somehow produces some good somewhere else in the universe at some undefined point in the future. Or “God’s ways are higher than ours,” which implies that there is a higher level of consciousness somewhere in the universe to whom millions of people dying of AIDS is not considered a terrible, horrible tragedy. Either way, God comes off looking like a complete jackass.

But I’m not doing to expound on the “shit happens” argument right now. For the sake of what I’m about to write, I don’t ask God, “Where were you?” because I’m upset that he doesn’t show up like a superhero to put a stop to every tragedy or act of evil that occurs in the world. In fact, I really shouldn’t be asking him that question at all, because I would never actually expect him to do such a thing. OK, I guess that’s mostly because I don’t technically believe in him. But even if I did – why should I expect him to care about anything you or I do?

The universe is massive. Beyond massive. Thus, if he exists, God probably has a lot on his plate. I know, I know, if you believe in God, you probably believe him to be omnipotent, able to be everywhere and do everything at once. But Jesus was a man, right? When he hanging around Jerusalem walking on water, giving people fish, and probably sporting a physical appearance closer to a New York taxi driver than the Swedish hippie he is portrayed as in art, he couldn’t be everywhere at once. And yet, he was God. People asked him for favors all the time: to satiate their hunger, raise their friends from the dead, and to drink his blood. And, according to the bible, he did what he could. But he only did what he deemed necessary to prove his divinity and teach his followers how to live a righteous life. If he thought it was in his old man’s best interest to personally help and guide every single person who believed in him, he probably would have done that (or whatever cross-generational amalgamation of anonymous royal henchmen that wrote about him in the bible would’ve written that he did that). But he didn’t. And yet, over two billion people in the world continue to pray to him every day, asking him for guidance, for help, for blessings, and any number of things. I mean, shit, half of his job seems to be blessing people’s food every night. How many dinners can he reasonably be expected to care about on a given evening? “The Hendersons are having lasagna again? Fuck them. I will not bless the food they are about to receive. Wait a second… I’m picking up a new group of signals… I smell… roast beef! Hell yeah, Mrs. Smith! I’m gonna bless me some of that shit!”

There are a lot of ways to be arrogant, and a lot of things to be arrogant about. Bono is arrogant because he thinks his shitty band is the best thing to happen to Ireland since potatoes. Donald Trump is arrogant because he has a lot of money and a hairstyle that can only be described as a wonder of modern physics. But what could possibly be more arrogant than claiming that the almighty creator of the universe speaks to you on a regular basis, spends his precious time helping you make your decisions, and is pretty much your best buddy in the whole wide world? When politicians claim that they are running for political office because God himself spoke to them and told them to, I find it incredibly offensive and insane, of course (man, it must get really awkward when two candidates running for the same office both claim to have been told to run by God. I wonder if Perry and Bachmann have gotten into an argument about that yet. Or at least compared notes about what God said to them. “No way, he told me he loves me too!”). But not for the reason you might think. Yes, I personally think a person must be either extremely deluded or schizophrenic to believe that God actually speaks to them, but people are entitled to their beliefs. Yes, I think it’s horrible that these folks exploit the honest faith of millions of people for their own sociopathic ends and desire for political power. But what most bothers me about that sort of thing is the sheer pomposity it takes to make such a claim. Perhaps it makes sense to other people who hold similar beliefs and also think they have a “personal relationship” with God. But I can’t think of anything more conceited than to claim that God wants you to be the leader of the free world. If people like Bush and Bachmann and Perry actually believe what they say, then they believe they have a heavenly mandate to rule, which, first of all, is something I sort of thought we got rid of somewhere around the time the French monarchy collapsed, and secondly, is a mighty presumptuous claim.

Why should God care about making you president? Are you that special and righteous that God decided to make you, out of everyone in the world, His candidate? Why should God care about blessing your dinner when there are millions of people who don’t have any dinner that he could be helping out instead? Why should God care about anything you do? The universe is huge and ever changing. Why are you so special that he spends on time on your fleeting, comparatively insignificant human life? Why are you so exceptional that God came up with a “plan” for you, spends all his time answering your prayers, and tells you about what do with your life?

I doubt he’s got the time.


  1. Emily wrote:

    It’s always interesting for me to reflect back on my Catholic upbringing and attempt to comprehend how I was persuaded to believe any of it. The fact that I was six years old might have had something to do with it. My religion classes between the ages of 6 – 15 were very focused on building this “personal relationship” with God. We heard testimonials from adults about how Jesus spoke to them and I often struggled because I knew the “answers” I was getting to my prayers were still my own thoughts…me pretending to hear God. My belief system has undergone a complete metamorphosis since beginning college, but even in junior high I was questioning. Now I believe in the universe – that I am part of something bigger than myself just like trees and rocks and stars. I was talking with my dad recently, after his friend’s funeral, about how some of his other buddies were becoming really religious as they aged. He told me how a friend was trying to persuade him to start going to church, but my dad turned to me, pointed to the ten acre forest that comprises our backyard and said “That’s my church.” That’s how I feel too. This quote by Carl Sagan also sums up my feelings pretty well: “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of star stuff.”

  2. Jack wrote:

    You can write, sir. I like ’em both.

    Have you ever read Adam Savage’s thoughts on religion?

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