Sunday, January 30, 2011


A parable.

So, there ’s Gordon. In Hell. His crime? Religious dissent. On Earth, we call governments that punish religious dissenters totalitarian, but he has long since learned to let that go — eons of torture and burning tend to take your mind off of things.

Gordon is holding a tray and is in a long, long line in Hell’s Cafeteria. The air conditioning is on the fritz again, and it's hot as Hell. Over the speakers, they're playing Muzak arrangements of Barry Manilow ("Mandy", 24/7, for eternity) and they're serving fish-sticks, again, for the hundred-trillionth day in a row. As he approaches the counter Gordon notices a small sign, written in blood. His blood. "Tomorrow’s special: fish sticks." Bastards: they think of everything.

Time has no meaning here, but Gordon keeps a day-planner anyway, because he’s always been a planner sort of guy. For today, it says:

8 AM burning
9 AM drawing-and-quartering
10 AM hanging
11 AM dismemberment
12 PM lunch (poisoned)
1 PM the rack
2 PM root canal
3 PM drowning
4 PM re-runs of The Golden Girls
5 PM buried alive
6 PM beating
6:30 PM dinner (fish sticks - poisoned)

He flips forward a few pages. More of the same, although on Thursday he has an hour of cardio-kickboxing. He makes a mental note to get that changed to burning.

Gordon looks up. Ahead of and behind him, queuing with their trays, are the teeming billions of the damned. They are of every race, ethnicity, social station, and period in human history. Some are warlords, murders, rapists, and thieves; some are adulterers, some are liars, some liked the new Star Wars movies better than the old ones. But the majority are quite ordinary people who never hurt anybody. The ones from Gordon’s time lived their lives, went to school, read a few books, watched TV, cooked meals, raised their families, drove their kids to soccer practice, gave some bucks to charity, some even went to church now and again, but, wouldn’t you know it, they were improperly religious and consigned to Hellfire for eternity. There are also countless millions of truly, deeply, sincerely devout followers of literally thousands of different faiths that turned out to be false, and even devout followers of the Right Religion who were guilty of theological or liturgical misconduct.

Gordon hears different things about what the Right Religion is, about what he should have believed or how he should have behaved. Some say faith in a certain prophet alone. Some say sacraments. Some say accepting that a particular iron-age book was the final and perfect revelation. Some say that there are four truths and an eightfold noble path, and they can’t quite figure out what this eternal damnation business has to do with them. Some even say there was nothing to be done – that the game was rigged from the get-go. There are all sorts of ideas. He even heard that the correct answer was a life led in conformance to the will of the Goddess Maat, which would explain why pretty much everybody except ancient Egyptians seem well represented here. Who knows? Inwardly, Gordon shrugs. What does it matter now? There’s no reprieve. There are billions of people here who knew in their hearts that they were right and then — poof — fire, brimstone, perpetual torture, fish sticks, and Barry Manilow. Sucks to be you. Forever and ever. Amen.

Anyway, directly ahead of Gordon in line is Adolf Hitler. But Gordon has been in hell for a million trillion billion years already— that’s zero percent of his sentence, incidentally — and his memories of Earth mostly have faded. So while Hitler seems somehow familiar, especially with his postage stamp of a moustache and swastika armband, Gordon can’t quite place him. He’s about to ask him if they’ve ever met when Hitler looks over his shoulder and decides to strike up a conversation first.

"Gootentag," Hitler says. "So: what are you in for?"
"Skepticism," Gordon replies. "And you?"

Sunday, January 9, 2011


Bad news. The world is ending December 21st, 2012. Or at least a lot of people seem to think so, on the grounds that that’s the day when (they claim) the Mayan calendar “runs out”. I’m not quite sure why the pre-Columbian Mayans should be taken as authorities on anything at all, let alone prognostication, especially since things didn’t work out all that well for them. By contrast, the 2012 crowd don’t seem much cheered by the fact that, for instance, China’s calendar doesn’t run out in 2012.

There’s been so much public concern about 2012 that some folks at NASA decided to take time out from unimportant work such as exploring the universe and unlocking its secrets to create a number of public-relations web-pages assuring people that they can go ahead with their advance planning for New Year’s Eve, 2012.

This is probably futile, since people who believe in this sort thing usually are immune to rational argument. Still, it’s good to know that somebody’s trying. Take
these people, for instance, who are waging a radio and pamphlet-based campaign against this poppycock that the world is ending in December 2012. According to them, it’s ending May 21st, 2011. Get with the program, people.

I know this because some supporter of theirs handed me a pamphlet outside of Shopper’s Drug Mart yesterday. “The End of the World Is Almost Here! Holy God Will Bring Judgment Day on May 21, 2011!” I did some quick mental math and then headed straight to the LCBO to stock up, because if the world’s coming to an end, I’m getting wasted.

At home, I perused the pamphlet and their website over a cheeky little Beaujolais. Family Radio, I discovered, was founded in 1959 and now has several dozen FM radio licenses in the United States. (According to Wikipedia, these licenses would be worth several hundred million dollars today.) Day after day, these stations broadcast this end-of-the-world business to whoever happens to be listening. Their arrival at the precise date of Judgment is based on a complex numerology explained on their website. Incidentally, they also reject the usual Creationist nonsense about the world being 6,000 years old. Turns out it’s 13,000 years old. Again: Program. With the. Get.

At any rate, their website insisted that “well-known denominations such as Roman Catholic, Baptist, Reformed, Presbyterian, Seventh-Day Adventist, Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon, etc.” are “still in deep trouble with God”. At this, my heart rose slightly— perhaps I might be okay after all. I read on. Alas, it was not be so.

It’s often said that religions are automatically to be accorded respect, and that people are not to be criticized on the basis of their religion. The cultural relativists who dominate the academy are particularly insistent about this, going so far as to argue that criticism of religion – and of certain religions in particular – is tantamount to racism. But this is not a position that they themselves believe, since they are perfectly willing to cast aspersions in the direction of, say, the Catholic Church, over such things as the ordination of women and other issues that shouldn’t concern non-Catholics. By contrast, I remember well how they fell all over themselves to defend those who sought the death of Salman Rushdie, arguing that he really did hurt the feelings of millions of people who never read The Satantic Verses.

Respectful behavior can be mandated but actual respect cannot be. Whatever else they may be, the world’s religions are social institutions into which people have vested enormous and all-too human effort. Some of those people are morons, and it’s hard to treat them respectfully. Some of those efforts have been violent, and preach violence, and we have a right to defend ourselves against them. This goes, too, for crude and crass theological arguments mounted by the likes of Family Radio. If you tell me that I’m going to hell, I get to tell you to precede me there.

The suggestion that religions are beyond the scope of criticism can hardly be taken seriously. Certainly no one who is a devout follower of any given denomination takes such an argument seriously, since his own beliefs almost invariably constitute an implicit or even explicit criticism of other beliefs. Either reincarnation exists or it doesn’t. Either a certain messiah is divine or he isn’t. Either the world will end May 21st, 2010, or it won’t.

I am currently taking bets – of any size – that it won’t.