A Catholic Reply to “How to Suck At Your Religion”

An anti-religious (and specifically, anti-Catholic) webcomic is making the rounds on the Internet right now. It’s part of a webcomic called The Oatmeal, and is called “How to suck at your religion.” I have to warn anyone clicking that link that it’s really offensive: profane, lewd, and blasphemous, all at once. Honestly, if you don’t have some reason to read it, just go ahead and skip it (and this whole post).  Whatever your religious views, this webcomic simply doesn’t enrich the discourse, or advance the debate in any positive or meaningful way.

You would think that something this over-the-top would cause even non-religious people to balk at posting it on their Facebook feeds as indicative of their own views. Apparently not. I’ve already gotten two e-mails from people who had friends share it, and who wanted to know how to respond.

There is a temptation to say, “It’s a webcomic, don’t take it so seriously!”  But the truth is, while it’s supposed to be funny, it’s also supposed to make a serious point. In my view, it fails on both counts, but I’m really only concerned about the latter.  Nearly every panel raises a different argument against certain types of religion, with most of the vitriol saved for Catholicism. Each of these arguments collapse on closer inspection, and it’s clear that the sheer quantity of arguments cannot overcome the dearth of quality of any given argument.

So here are my thoughts, by panel:

  1. The first panel depicts a Catholic priest (with a Roman collar) confidently damning all those who don’t belong to the Church. This is just a lazy straw man. While She’s canonized thousands of Saints, the Church has never declared anyone in Hell. On a related note, one of the obnoxious things about atheist attacks on Christianity is that they act as if Catholicism and Evangelicalism / Fundamentalism are basically the same thing.  On of the things that Dr. Mark Gray said, in the article I linked to last week, was that: “It’s interesting that so much of the rhetoric of New Atheism seems to really be directed at Evangelical Christians—those specifically who take the Bible literally word for word. Many New Atheists seem to think anyone who is religious holds similar beliefs. Yet, this cannot be equated with the mainstream Catholic point of view.”  If you’re going to argue against something, it helps to at least understand the thing you’re arguing against.
  2. This gets the Galileo affair completely wrong. A much-needed corrective here, or a thousand other places, for those who actually care enough about the facts to check them.
  3. Jewish twins kept alive at Auschwitz
    for the sake of human experimentation.
    Were those who opposed this barbarism “anti-science”?

    This also grossly misrepresents why Christians oppose embryonic stem cell research (and falsely accuses us of being against all stem cell research). But I suppose the author has to misrepresent the Christian view, because otherwise, it makes a lot of sense. If human life begins at conception (which, scientifically, it does…. and is the only reason embryonic stem cell research is even possible), we’re talking about doing medical research that profits off of mass killing. This has been done before, and those who opposed it on moral grounds weren’t “anti-science,” and aren’t today. The term you’re looking for is pro-life.

  4. So… religion is fine, unless you actually believe in it? Should parents not pass their political, ethical or moral views on to their children as well? What parts of parenting would be left if parents were to avoid passing their views on to their kids? The irony here is that silence is itself a statement. Avoiding any mention of God to your kids sends as clear a message as talking about God: specifically, it tells your kids that God’s existence is either untrue, unknown, or unimportant. Because if you knew Him to exist, surely you’d share that knowledge, right?
  5. This next section is probably the worst, because it’s just an incoherent argument. A kid asks, “Dad, what happens to us after we die?” The author compares providing the Christian answer to this question with correcting your kid for having green as a favorite color. What??  That just isn’t a coherent argument.  In what world are those two ideas parallel, or even comparable?

    According to the webcomic, good parenting is to pretend to be agnostic, and say that “no one really knows for sure.” Of course, if the Resurrection is true, that claim is false. So to be a good parent, you apparently have to deny the Resurrection and embrace agnosticism, treating beliefs about the afterlife as mere matters of personal preference like having a favorite color. This is just… stupid. There’s just no other way of describing it. Imagine if we treated everything that way. “Dad, what’s 3 x 3?” “No one really knows for sure. What do YOU think 3 x 3 is?”

  6. Raphael, Adam and Eve (1511)
  7. The idea that a religion is bad if it gives you “weird anxieties about your sexuality” is naïve. What I mean is that sexuality is much more powerful and truly awesome than the author lets on. If sex is just no big deal, recreational fun, then adultery’s no problem, right?

    Of course not. Agnostics and atheists have “weird anxieties” about sexuality, too, precisely because sexuality is powerful, and can cause a heck of a lot of damage when treated carelessly and casually. Everything from broken hearts and broken homes to rampant STDs and AIDS to millions of unplanned pregnancies and abortions would seem to have made all of that really clear by now.

  8. Religion is bad if you believe enough to try to tell other people that it’s true. Why, exactly? As a society, we freely try to convince each other of specific worldviews all the time, including really speculative ones, like political worldviews. Why is all of that positive, healthy democracy, while treating religion the same way is evil?

     The author specifically advocates that good religions are ones that make it hard to join. Again, why? If having the right relationship with God is the best thing, not only for me, but for anyone, then trying to prevent others from that right relationship would literally be about the worst thing that I could do.

  9. This just grossly misrepresents Christianity.  As I said before, if you’re going to argue against something, it helps to at least understand the thing you’re arguing against.  In Monday’s post, I mentioned that one goal we should have in inter-religious dialogues and debates is to be able to describe the other person’s position in a way that they would recognize, and acknowledge as their own.

    Needless to say, that’s not what happens here. Instead, there’s mockery and sneering of a ridiculous distortion of Christianity: mocking beliefs, in other words, that no Christian actually holds.  Edward Feser has a great response to this sort of cheap shot, showing that this same asinine approach could be used to make science look stupid (provided that no one bothered to listen to scientists about what they actually believed).

  10. Do you need to read the Bible to know
    that killing him is immoral and unethical?

    I don’t think anyone votes based solely on religious beliefs. I also don’t think that being against abortion is a “religious belief.” The belief consists of three propositions: (a) human life begins at conception, (b) the intentional ending of innocent human life is murder, and (c) murder is bad. Which of these beliefs requires being a Christian?

  11. Invoking the Muhammad drawing controversy is just a reminder that the reason Christians are targeted for this mockery instead of Muslims is that smug atheists are afraid of Muslims. They bully us precisely because we’re not the violent, intolerant psychos that they pretend we are. If there really were a “Christian Taliban,” folks like this would be too afraid to mock us, as they are with Muslims. So in this sense, all of this is a beautiful reminder that, for all our faults, there really is something to Christianity.
  12. In condemning killing for religion, the author conflates it with “hurt[ing], hinder[ing], or condemn[ing] in the name of your God,” right after a lengthy tirade condemning Christians. Not even a hint of irony.
  13. Good religion is apparently placebo religion, and it’s okay only as long as we keep it to ourselves. The author then indulges the mandatory use of profanity to show us how calm and reasonable he is.

In Scalia’s dissent from Lee v. Weisman, he accused the majority of treating religion as “some purely personal avocation that can be indulged entirely in secret, like pornography, in the privacy of one’s room. For most believers it is not that, and has never been.”  This really does capture two competing views of religion.

Lucas Cranach the Elder,
Head of Christ Crowned with Thorns (1510)

One view, the view taken in the webcomic, is that religion consists of a set of ideas that we latch on to, not because they’re true, but because we happen to like them. Because our religious views aren’t objectively true, but just subjectively nice, they’re as personal (and insignificant) as our favorite color. It’s just a way of coping “with the fact that you are a bag of meat sitting on a rock in outer space and that someday you will die,” and that all existence is utterly meaningless. But someone who takes this view of religion can’t even be reasonably described as religious. After all, they’re essentially saying, “I know religion isn’t true, but I wish it was.”

But the other view is that religion describes something, and Someone, utterly real… the very ground and sustenance of reality, in fact. What’s more, knowledge of this Truth is the most important knowledge we could possess – the only knowledge that makes an eternal difference, while all other knowledge fleets or fades. But beyond even this, a relationship with this God, our God, enriches our life here on earth, filling it meaning, not as some delusional placebo, but in the way that a story takes on new profundity when you can hear the author explain why he wrote it that way.  This is the only view of religion worth taking, since this is the only view of religion that treats it as true, rather than just a nice idea: that is, it’s the only one of the two views worthy to be called “religious.”

Beneath all the smugness, profanity, blasphemy, and sneering hipster irony, the webcomic falters in the face of this: true, substantial, real religion. The comic can mischaracterize and distort, but in the face of actual Catholicism, it’s silent. It has no coherent or compelling answer in response to the Catholic claim. Snark simply has no retort to truth.

Update: Marc Barnes (Bad Catholic) responds to the same webcomic, quite wittily.


Update: Thanks to all who have commented so far.  I obviously can’t respond to every one of you, but I’ve written a follow-up post responding to some of the general trends that I’ve seen.

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