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So It Goes

May 1, 2009
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At last night’s press conference, President Obama mentioned reading an article about torture. He said he was struck to read that as the United Kingdom fought for its existence in the Battle of Britain, about 200 Germans were their captives. According to Obama:

Churchill said, we don’t torture — when the entire British — all of the British people were being subjected to unimaginable risk and threat. And the reason was that Churchill understood you start taking shortcuts, and over time that corrodes what’s best in a people. It corrodes the character of a country.

Today, I saw an article about a Pew Research Center poll that reveals that increased church attendance correlates with tolerance of and support for torture.

Practically all of my friends have been annoyed with me at one time or another for my obsession with the sentence, “Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.” It comes from the novel Slaughterhouse -Five by Kurt Vonnegut. It is a gorgeous quirk of the English language that a sentence composed of two sweet declarations can evoke a wistful response from every reader. So it goes.

One of the characters in Slaughterhouse-Five is a novelist, and some of his books are described by Vonnegut’s narrator. When Obama’s lesson about World War Two was juxtaposted in my mind with the results of the Pew poll, one of the novelist’s stories screamed to my attention. What follows is Vonnegut’s description of the book within his book:


The Gospel from Outer Space

The visitor from outer space made a serious study of Christianity, to learn, if he could, why Christians found it so easy to be cruel. He concluded that at least part of the trouble was slipshod storytelling in the New Testament. He supposed that the intent of the Gospels was to teach people, among other things, to be merciful, even to the lowest of the low. But the Gospels actually taught this:

Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn’t well connected.

The flaw in the Christ stories, said the visitor from outer space, was that Christ, who didn’t look like much, was actually the Son of the Most Powerful Being of the Universe. Readers understood that, so, when they came to the crucifixion, they naturally thought, and Rosewater read out loud again:

Oh, boy — they sure picked the wrong guy to lynch that time!

And then that thought had a brother: “There are right people to lynch.” Who? People not well connected. So it goes.

The visitor from outer space made a gift to Earth of a new Gospel. In it, Jesus really was a nobody, and a pain in the neck to a lot of people with better connections than he had. He still got to say all the lovely and puzzling things he said in the other Gospels.

So the people amused themselves one day by nailing him to a cross and planting the cross in the ground. There couldn’t possibly be any repercussions, the lynchers thought. The reader would have to think that, too, since the new Gospel hammered home again and again what a nobody Jesus was.

And then, just before the nobody died, the heavens opened up, and there was thunder and lightning. The voice of God came crashing down. He told the people that he was adopting the bum as his son, giving him the full powers and privileges of The Son of the Creator of the Universe throughout all eternity. God said this: From this moment on, He will punish horribly anybody who torments a bum who has no connections!

From a secular standpoint, torture is corrosive. No less a genius than Winston Churchill stood by that truth, even as the continued existence of the free world was in grave doubt. If religion were of any value at all, it would reinforce this truth not just when it is pragmatic to do so. It would reinforce this truth all the time. Yet here we are in the United States in 2009, and the people to whom this is an open question are the pious. The saved.

If this country is to be saved, it is not just the Muslim fundamentalists who must be stopped. We must restrain ourselves. If the followers of Jesus Christ can not see that, they have nothing to tell the rest of us about morality.



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18 Comments leave one →
  1. Saul permalink
    May 1, 2009 11:59 am

    I couldn’t have said it better myself. Religion, it seems, has brought out the worst in so many people throughout history. The old administration’s foreign policy was tainted with religious under and overtones, and reminded me at times of the dogma espoused during the Crusades.

    That said, I should say that there are a number of people who do represent their religions well, but the zealots overshadow them.

    As far as torture is concerned, it is an utterly reprehensible act. The U.S. was founded on a set of ideals. Condoning torture, in any form, goes against nearly everything this country was founded on. I agree with Churchill. If you cut corners with morality, you lose sight of who you are, and ultimately you turn into something else entirely, maybe even what you started fighting against in the first place.

    P.S. Slaughterhouse-Five is one of my all time favorite books.

  2. richard Goldwater MD permalink
    May 1, 2009 1:16 pm

    The magic word is hierarchy. Religion reinforces the notion of a higher authority to which one is subject without appeal. It is a short step from the perception of a hierarchical world order to that of oppression and torture. I guess this is a riff on what Obama sparked. What would Obama say to the evidence of the Pew Research Council?

  3. Barry permalink
    May 1, 2009 2:19 pm

    Obama would probably muster some obscurantist platitudes about the importance of faith in a higher power. Nobody’s perfect.

  4. Barry permalink
    May 1, 2009 2:19 pm

    Obama would probably muster some obscurantist platitudes about the importance of faith in a higher power. Nobody’s perfect.

  5. Aleksei permalink
    May 1, 2009 2:33 pm

    in response to saul’s comment, “Condoning torture, in any form, goes against nearly everything this country was founded on.”

    you’ve made me aware that for some reason I can’t imagine anyone dressed in early american attire torturing someone. this has nothing to do with anything. it’s just an observation of my own mind.

  6. Jojo permalink
    May 1, 2009 5:36 pm

    i have never gotten annoyed that you often invoke ‘everything was beautiful…’. does that mean i am impractically one of your friends?

  7. Aaron permalink
    May 1, 2009 9:18 pm

    The heavyweights weigh in & your arguments are solid. That said, I am skeptical of pollsters and don't hold these Pew numbers in particularly high regard. Do they speak to the indicators of increased church attendance for individuals or groups? For specific demographics? Denominations? I'm all for healthy skepticsm when it comes to religious dogma, but the implication that all religious and spiritual institutions are not to be trusted strikes me as equally dogmatic. Church can be as much about community and dialogue as about xenophobia and prescribed belief. And don't forget the coffee and cookies at the Oneg.

  8. Aleksei permalink
    May 1, 2009 9:42 pm

    actually, I’m with Jonah in the “not annoyed” camp. who gets annoyed with you for that?

  9. Barry permalink
    May 1, 2009 10:37 pm

    Aaron – The poll results are linked to in the main text, you should check them out.

    I am not making an argument against all religion (at least here, I’m not.) I am making an argument against a religion whose membership correlates with acceptance of torture at a rate greater than the rest of the population. From a moral perspective, this is reprehensible.

    If I have implied in this entry that somehow this condemnation should extend to all religion, that was not my intention. I don’t think I have, though.

    It is worthwhile to address a point that Alek raised elsewhere; he highlighted the poll’s failure to assign causation to the religion (or otherwise questioned how far the poll’s results go.) For my purposes, this doesn’t matter. If a religion is doing its job, its members will not accept torture at a rate higher than the rest of the population.

    It doesn’t matter if pastors are advocating waterboarding from the pulpit or if these ideas are ‘merely’ coming out over donuts after the service, there is a deep cancer in a community that accepts torture. That the community happens to be one that pretends to follow instructions from the author of morality just makes it creepier. This is our concern, dude.

  10. Barry permalink
    May 1, 2009 10:37 pm

    Aaron – The poll results are linked to in the main text, you should check them out.

    I am not making an argument against all religion (at least here, I’m not.) I am making an argument against a religion whose membership correlates with acceptance of torture at a rate greater than the rest of the population. From a moral perspective, this is reprehensible.

    If I have implied in this entry that somehow this condemnation should extend to all religion, that was not my intention. I don’t think I have, though.

    It is worthwhile to address a point that Alek raised elsewhere; he highlighted the poll’s failure to assign causation to the religion (or otherwise questioned how far the poll’s results go.) For my purposes, this doesn’t matter. If a religion is doing its job, its members will not accept torture at a rate higher than the rest of the population.

    It doesn’t matter if pastors are advocating waterboarding from the pulpit or if these ideas are ‘merely’ coming out over donuts after the service, there is a deep cancer in a community that accepts torture. That the community happens to be one that pretends to follow instructions from the author of morality just makes it creepier. This is our concern, dude.

  11. Barry permalink
    May 1, 2009 10:41 pm

    As to the “annoyed by ‘everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt’ camp”, I can only say that the line served as my email signature over the protests of a number of people, apparently none of whom are as loyal (to me or to Vonnegut, I can’t say) as Alek or Jonah are.

  12. Your Real Friend permalink
    May 2, 2009 2:52 am

    If you say Everything is Beautiful and Nothing Hurt one more time, I’m going to scalpel out your eyeballs, you atheist faggot.

  13. Anonymous permalink
    May 2, 2009 7:54 pm

    That’s what friends are for…

  14. Dan permalink
    May 3, 2009 3:15 am

    So speaking of Vonnegut http://www.asofterworld.com/index.php?id=428

  15. Dan permalink
    May 15, 2009 8:15 pm

    CORRELATION IS NOT CAUSATION

  16. Barry permalink
    May 15, 2009 8:23 pm

    Dan,

    If you had read my comments, you would see that I addressed the causation issue. I am not saying that Christianity made people into torture fans, I am saying that Christianity did not un-make torture fans. That is failure. Christianity failed on the issue of torture.

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