Much can be said about religion without really saying it out loud. Such is the case with Pan’s Labyrinth, which is not a religious movie yet still a movie on religion. Apart from being a beautiful movie, it contains religious themes that do not intrude on the experience at all: a rare thing. If you haven’t seen it, do so, preferably without reading my analysis, which out of necessity must reveal some of the plot.
Pan’s Labyrinth begins with the arrival of twelve-year-old Ofelia and her mother at the camp of Captain Vidal, Ofelia’s mother Carmen’s new husband. We’re in Spain, 1944, and Franco and his fascists have won the Civil War. Carmen is pregnant, while Ofelia retreats into fairy tales.
Captain Vidal, as it turns out, puts his ideals above all else, or else he’s just a plain sadist, effectually illustrated in a scene where a father and a son, suspected to be rebels, are captured in the woods at night. The father claims they’re hunting rabbits. The son says that if his father says so, it must be true. Vidal responds by crushing the face of the son, and when the father complains, he kills him too. Then they open the bag the two men had with them, and find a dead rabbit…
Let’s keep this short and sweet. You may want to know why unbelievers care so much about belief. Well, perhaps you do not, but the internet is flooded with Christians and other believers who do. Sometimes, it is simply curiosity, and sometimes, it is presented as some sort of argument against unbelief. As if to say nonbelievers somehow disqualify their nonbelief by caring.
I’d like to direct you to a Wikipedia entry entitled List of problems solved by MacGyver. It argues my point very well. Here is perhaps the single longest Wikipedia page I have seen, and it’s written about the extraordinary feats of a fictional character in a TV show. By the way, who are these people who write mile long wiki entries on fiction? Could they be, say, enthusiasts?
As surely as there are stamp collectors and amateur writers, there are hobby philosophers. There are people who like to think about whether God exists or not; not because they have a spiritual crisis; not because they feel the need for the crutch of faith; not because the devil tricked them into denying the obvious truth of Gospel; not because the Flying Spaghetti Demon whispered to them in a dream “Go forth and make the heathens numerous!”; but simply because they find the question intrinsically interesting…
When I wrote about demanding that one read some holy book, such as the Bible, I got a good deal of criticism for saying that I reject the Bible without having read all of it. What I meant, of course, was that I reject the foundation of the Christian religion, which I do know, and I don’t particularly care about the rest of the book as long as its teachings are irrelevant to me.
I’m not going to open that particular can of worms again. Rather, let’s take a step back and consider what a good reason to reject a belief system would look like.
Every religion is a body of different belief systems. There’s ethical teachings, mythology, cosmology, biology, philosophy, all jammed together from a time when there was no real separation between the various branches of science, the various branches of philosophy and religion. We all have some kind of attitude to these systems. And here comes the crucial point: there is no neutral belief system. Every belief system, so long as its body of beliefs is halfway coherent, will include an implicit claim to the opposite of opposing belief systems…
We all know that evolution is a major stumbling block for the God of the Gaps, you know the one that automatically fills all the gaps in our knowledge, miraculously both providing us with an explanation to previously unexplainable phenomena and letting theists defend their existing faith. Still, even if we have no trouble explaining how humans developed from the initial seed of life, we’re still having some more trouble explaining just how that initial seed came about. As far as I know, there’s no universally accepted theory of abiogenesis.
Now, an international team has discovered that under the right conditions, particles of inorganic dust can become organised into helical structures. These structures can then interact with each other in ways that are usually associated with organic compounds and life itself (…)
Norway is a constitutional monarchy without separation of Church and State. The constitution declares the “Evangelical-Lutheran religion” to be the State’s religion, and also requires the king to hold to and protect this religion. You can imagine, then, that when Princess Märtha Louise (who, had not law at the time of her birth favored males, would have been heir to the throne) decides to start up an independent school which will educate its students in such New Age concepts as healing, reading and contact with angels, by media dubbed “the angel school”, there’s gonna be some public discussion. When this occurs during summer—when there’s simply less news for the media to write about—it’s caused massive media coverage.
Reactions are varied, of course: a televangelist condemned her as being a demon from Hell; a range of people condemned her as a fraud and for immorally profitting from people’s spiritual needs (some of them hypocritically looking the other way when they, as employees of the State Church, do the same); a lot of people demanded that she withdraw her membership in Den Norske Kirke, the State Church; the Princess herself thinks that, had she lived some hundred years past, she would’ve been burned as a witch; and a lot of people, including Crown Princess Mette-Marit, spoke out in her defence.
As an atheist, this fight between religions is both amusing and depressing. In my eyes, Christianity and New Age-style healing, miracles, contact with angels and the like are all contestants on the same, irrational game field…
Here’s a typical Christian claim (from A Christian on the Sidelines):
The Agnostic/Atheist is attempting to explain religion through empirical methods while Theists attempt the same by using theology. The mixing of these concepts into the other field is a clear injustice to both disciplines.
But is this really true? Is it true that theology sits on the primary, or even exclusive rights to say something about religion and gods? I happen to think that this is false; in fact, I think theology is little more than the rational analysis of theologians’ imaginations. Since theologians often have a rather good imagination, I will in this post use my imagination. For completeness, I’ve written about this before, but what I will say now isn’t exactly the same.
Imagine that I believe that the Moon is made of cheese. Now, being naturally curious, I start thinking about the implications of having a satellite made of cheese for Earth, and what current observations can tell us about the type of cheese that the Moon is made of, and countless other issues that a moon made of cheese would raise. After some time, I come to the conclusion that not only the Moon, but all other celestial bodies are made of cheese. Then I start publishing my investigations into the heavenly bodies and the material they’re made of. Only, I don’t publish my papers through the usual scientific means; instead, I found a whole new field, which I call Astronomical Cheesology.
C. S. Lewis, author of the Narnia books and himself an atheist before turning to Christianity, was critical of the idea that Jesus was a great moral teacher, but not divine, with the following trilemma:
- Jesus was lying and knew it, so he was a liar.
- Jesus was lying but believed what he was saying, so he was a lunatic.
- Jesus was telling the truth, so he was divine.
Thus, according to Lewis, Jesus could only be a great moral teacher if he was telling the truth and was the son of God. Later, this argument was used as a logical proof that Jesus was in fact the son of God.
- Point 1 couldn’t be true, or so the argument goes, because then Jesus wouldn’t be willing to die for it.
- Point 2 couldn’t be true, because Jesus for some reason couldn’t be a lunatic.
- Therefore, the logical conclusion is that Jesus was divine.
The point was raised in the comments to one of my blog entries on my Import Mind.Reason blog that there may be a fourth option – Jesus never claimed to be the son of God but that the early Christians misunderstood this or decided it for themselves…