School Chaplains: why can’t you lot just stick to the pulpit #auspol

It appears the Abbott government still wants to exclude secular workers from the School Chaplaincy program, despite widespread opposition and two High Court challenges.

Religious people have numerous avenues available if they wish to seek spiritual guidance for themselves or their children; this constant push by some of them to have exclusive access to other peoples’ children while in school is distasteful and extremely presumptuous (and possibly even un-Constitutional – while¬†Section 116 has historically not been applied to state funding of religious schools, implementing exclusively religious programs such as this in state schools might be a different basket of loaves and fishes. While the Abbott regime might be able to use the general term “religious” to escape being accused of favouring of one faith over another, the very term “chaplain” has an exclusively Christian origin and I doubt very strongly that we’ll see a great many imams, rabbis or whatever those used-god salesmen-for-Xenu call themselves counselling state school students). ¬†

Apart from the blatant discrimination involved in barring secular counselors from consideration, kids with serious problems (or even mild ones) don’t need Divinity lessons, they need trained professionals. Religious exceptionalism of this sort is highly likely to expose vulnerable children to inappropriate proselytising and unhelpful advice – when compared to the likelihood of a properly trained secular counselor attempting to proselytise their philosophy, it’s practically a stone-carved certainty.

If a counselor is appropriately qualified and experienced they should be hired; their religious status, just like their age, marital status and orientation, should be irrelevant to their practice. It’s not legal for the Commonwealth to refuse employment in any other area of operation on religious grounds; how such a proscription wouldn’t apply to state school counselors escapes me. This appears to be yet another example of a government operating by ideology and working off a checklist, with pragmatism, fairness and perhaps even legality being secondary concerns.

Evangelising students in school is not only preying on an audience that’s legally compelled to be there, it’s also based on the offensive and arrogant presumption that the evangelists have the right (God-given, of course) to undermine whatever religious traditions those kids’ families may already observe in their own homes or places of worship or whatever non-religious philosophies they may subscribe to.

Not only that, but those churches that evangelise more often than not subscribe to fringe conservative and flat-out fundamentalist interpretations of Scripture which have absolutely no place in our public schools, where there frequently is a plurality of ethnicity and culture.

I’m sure we can all imagine the outcry from decent Christian folk if Islamists or JW’s or Mormons were given privileged access to state school students (even if ostensibly to use their powers for good and explicitly not for the purposes of conversion attempts); it’s much better for all concerned (chiefly the kids who’ll need professional advice and support) if preachers (or preachers-by-other-names) stay in the pulpit.

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It’s a racket

With a mobile phone/appliance rental/bank loan/investment product contract, it’s all about the conditions – conditions which have been carefully put together to simultaneously protect the provider and the receiver. Default on a repayment or use your product or service in any way that’s contrary to the conditions in the fine print and you lose your rights. They can take your TV back & sue you for payments, void your warranty, cut off your phone service; maybe they’ll raise your interest rates without notice or perhaps the bank can go under and they can file for bankruptcy and be freed from giving you back any of the money you invested – but you agreed to all of those potential outcomes when you signed up. Perhaps you didn’t read those parts but hey, you signed the bit indicating that you had, which makes you responsible.

But that’s what happens with a normal contract made between two adults who it is assumed are aware of their rights and responsibilities. But what about the contract that Christians believe we’re all bound to?
The substance of this contract is this:

  1. All humans are born carrying the guilt of our original ancestors who dared to use their god-given free will to defy the god (hereafter referred to as “God”) who created them & the universe
  2. An avatar of God, named Jesus, came to Earth to spread the word of God, perform miracles and was tortured, executed and later returned to life in order to forgive us all of this inherited culpability
  3. All humans are born with an immortal, non-physical soul which will leave our bodies after we die
  4. Those of us who accept (1) and (2) will be rewarded with a place in an infinite paradise where our departed souls (as noted in (3)) will dwell in blissful eternity alongside God
  5. Those of us who do not accept either (1) or (2) (or both) will have their souls damned for eternity, in a place of unspeakable agony either created or merely allowed to exist by God; this place is named “Hell” and run by a former employee of God
  6. There is no “opt-out” clause. Once you’re alive, you’re eternally bound by this contract
  7. You can not choose to not have a soul or choose to just cease to exist when you die; you MUST exist forever and you MUST do so either in bliss or torment
  8. The ONLY thing you can do to escape the eternal torment mentioned in (5) and win the bliss mentioned in (4) is to believe (1) and (2). You can not do so by good works, being a decent, humble, person, being a loving compassionate humanitarian and good example for your children, neighbours, and everyone else. It’s (1) and (2) or it’s (5).

So there’s really no two ways about it. By the terms of this contract, a truly rotten, murderous, lying, thieving, child-raping bastard of a Christian who repents on his deathbed has a better chance of entering Heaven post-mortem than a Hindu, Jew, atheist, Zoroastrian or Muslim or Buddhist or Raelian who dedicates his or her life to being a shiny happy benefit to the world whilst alive. Theoretically you could be better than Jesus himself (hey, he did have one or two unseemly public outbursts) and still become the Devil’s property.

Speak of the Devil … there exist in history inummerable dark, cautionary tales of signing contracts with he of the awesome guitar-shredding skills and promising him your eternal soul in exchange for temporary Earthly power or pleasures or profits. It is always explained in these tales that you can’t, shouldn’t, mustn’t take the Devil at his word, even if you do have his word in writing. But hey – he’s The Devil, right? Lord of Evil, Prince of Darkness, The Deceiver, He Who Graces Countless Heavy Metal Album Covers? With names like that, why should anyone be naive enough to trust him at all? It’s an unwritten law that any contract with the Devil isn’t worth the skin it’s carved into.

But this other celestial contract we’re all presumably bound to, in-utero & in perpetuity, is authored by the all-knowing, all-loving God of the universe. He of the perfect goodness – why, the word “good” is derived from his very name itself! Given that, you’d expect God to at the very least be fair, to give us what we need to use the free will he allegedly bestowed upon us to make an informed choice. But we don’t know anything about this arrangement until after we’re born. We don’t get a choice, let alone an informed one – the Christian operating system is marketed as the only one in town and you either play by its rules or you go to Hell. Once born, you’re told starting from before you can even understand how to not defecate on yourself that you’re the product of something called Original Sin, that you’re stained with this Sin from hundreds of generations ago and that unless you repent for this crime of someone else that you barely understand and accede to the terms of the contract, you’ll pay the price. Forever.

This is not a contract. Contracts are entered into freely by two or more informed parties. You don’t just draw up a contract with someone behind their back and give them no choice but to be bound by it – and you certainly shouldn’t do so while they’re still a foetus. This is little more than a racket. It’s an offer you can’t refuse, straight out of the gangster stereotype playbook: “Hey, nice little soul you got here. Shame if something … happened to it. We can help you. We’ll keep this Devil mook out of your face, no problem, but you gotta do for us, capiche?”

But look, if Christianity is so awesome, why not let it sell itself? Why doesn’t the avatar named Jesus bounce in now and again? And I don’t mean by appearing in a tree stump, a dog’s arse, or a cornflake. I mean by actually physically coming back, like he told his disciples he would, and giving us the sales pitch of a lifetime instead of relying on innumerable salesmen in amusing hats telling everyone something different. Imagine that – getting the full story from the source. Not just that, but it’d be a gesture of good faith if he give us an opt-out because he respects the free will he says he gave us. It’s hardly “free” to give someone a binary choice between ecstasy and torment. Why should this Christianity plan be compulsory with Hell being the only other option? Believing in God as the creator of everything, accepting Jesus as his awesome hippy avatar and having faith that he loves you – that’s one thing. Leaving aside the lack of support for those claims, there’s nothing really that bad with believing that kind of thing. If “God loves me, be nice” were the sum total of the doctrine, most people would probably be ok with that. But the fact that Christianity needs to bolster those beliefs by telling people they’re the protagonists in the ultimate horror movie – and that there’s only one way out of the clutches of the killer – has to make you wonder about the alleged infinite goodness of the God behind it. It certainly has to make you wonder if someone prepared to do or allow such a horrible thing for not loving him is worth your love at all. Indeed, if God was so very concerned about us going to Hell, it should make you wonder why he allows it to exist in the first place and why he doesn’t give everyone the same information as to how to avoid it.

Comfort

No, not Ray Comfort, the odd little Kiwi who masturbated a banana and called it “the atheist’s nightmare” (I mean, it was a nightmare, only not just for atheists *shudder*). Rather, this is about the state or condition of being comfortable or comforted; the mitigation or elimination of discomfort. Specifically, the point of view held by defenders of religion, both religious and not-necessarily-religious, that religious belief, even if demonstrably false & unsupported, provides comfort to those who hold it.

With special regard to death & bereavement, this is maintained all the time. Even if someone’s religion is false, they might say, the fact that they believe their departed loved one is in a much better place is easing their pain and dulling their grief. Even in their bereavement and suffering, they take solace from their belief that the deceased person now sits with God. As they contemplate their own inveitable death, they may draw comfort from the prospect of finally meeting their maker and being reunited with those who went before them.

What I’d like to know is how comfortable these believers feel contemplating the afterlives of other people – specifically, people who don’t share their beliefs. With few exceptions, most people in the world have relatives and friends of different faiths and/or of no faith at all. How comforting is it to think about what happens to them once they die? How nice could eternal bliss in Heaven possibly be with the knowledge of loved ones being tormented forever elsewhere or, as some religions maintain, simply ceasing to exist?

As a child, this troubled me. The thought of Hell was bad enough in and of itself, but the thought of friends or family being sent there while I went to Heaven was utterly beastly. Surely God would know that not everyone had the same religion, or if they were, not necessarily of the same sect (as a nominal Protestant, I worried about my Catholic friends and I’m sure they worried about me). Surely God knew that many people in the world, mostly good people, had never heard of Jesus. If they’d never heard of Jesus while they were alive and therefore weren’t Christians when they died, were they to expect eternal torment? This still troubles me – not because I believe it’s true but because so many people seem to be so damned okay with it. Some aren’t though – hence the proclaimed aims of evangelism and the subsequent being woken up on a Saturday morning by one of two main brands of Bible-thumper – and that’s almost admirable. After all, they’re trying to save people from the worst fate they can imagine. However, I can’t help but wonder why they’re not asking themselves why God created Hell in the first place, especially if he was going to make it so easy to gain entry – it’s not like he had no choice in the matter. I’d suggest they actually ask God what the deal is with Hell, but there’s a glaringly obvious reason why I won’t.

I’m just wondering how much comfort a Christian takes from her faith whilst at the funeral of her Jewish best friend, who she believes won’t be joining God in Heaven and may even burn forever. Can a Muslim draw any comfort from his faith if his son, an apostate, an atheist, lies before him in his grave? What of the Jehovah’s Witness on his deathbed, spending his last moments in abject sorrow because his children left the one true faith, the faith of his fathers? It would seem that, in these cases (which must happen every day across the globe), a person’s faith would provide no comfort whatsoever. Quite the opposite.

Of course, some religious people say “specific belief doesn’t matter – all paths lead to God,” in which case there would be no point in subscribing to one belief system over another. But I strongly suspect people who say such things wouldn’t convert to another religion or even just renounce their own for, say, five minutes, even to make a point. I think they say such things to comfort themselves as they contemplate the doom of a loved one. I think the fear of Hell (a cornerstone of even the most moderate Christianity – what did Jesus get himself executed for if not to save us all from the Hell of his father’s – his own making?) will always be strong enough for most believers to remain in the fold.

So, no, I don’t buy this “religion provides comfort” business – especially when talking of death, which is when comfort is most needed. Indeed, it would seem that the stronger your faith, the less comfort you can possibly take from it if the deceased isn’t of your flock, or if you’re contemplating your own death in the unshakeable belief that many of your loved ones won’t be joining you. If I were still Christian, I could think of nothing more harrowing than the prospect of dying & entering Heaven to sit with God, only to see my wife, my brothers, most of my friends or my parents condemned for all eternity and out of my reach. No amount of racing Jim Clark down golden streets or long, stoned conversations with Hendrix or real-life Quake games could comfort me.

Can you be a Christian without believing in Satan?

I begin with a basic overview of Christianity:

God’s first humans, Adam & Eve, are tricked into obtaining forbidden knowledge by a talking snake. God punishes them by kicking them out of Eden to a now-mortal life of back-breaking toil. This “Original Sin” of Adam & Eve is deemed sufficient cause for God to doom all of their descendants – all of humanity, all of us – to eternity in Hell, which is a place of eternal torment & agony, ruled by Satan, a former angel who rebelled against God (whether God created Hell for Satan or Satan created it himself aren’t clear. What’s also unclear is whether the snake was Satan in disguise and whether God kicked Satan out of Heaven before he tricked Adam & Eve or after). After a few thousand years and a few prophets, God sends his son, Jesus (who is also God) to be tortured & murdered by Romans and resurrected three days later. This bloody sacrifice & re-animation is intended to cleanse us of our inherited guilt and allow our souls entry to Heaven after we die. As long as we believe Jesus/God died/had himself killed to cleanse us of the guilt of a millennia-old sin we had no part in committing, we shall indeed see Heaven. If we do not accept that Jesus is our saviour, we shall join Satan in Hell and be tormented by him forever. For eternity. Until the end of time. During our lives on Earth, Satan – as you’d expect from the Prince of Darkness and Lord of Evil – will constantly be tempting us to follow him in the ways of evil. Why? Because he wants our souls to torment them forever! The only way to negate Satan’s machinations and avoid an eternity of Guantanamo-style hospitality is to accept Jesus as our saviour and allow him custody of our souls.

Bear in mind that I said “basic” and not “brief”. When the hell am I ever brief?

So, anyway, I wonder about Christians who believe the Jesus & Heaven part, but not the Satan & Hell part. Because of that, I wonder if Christianity even has a point without the existence of Satan & Hell. I wonder this because a lot of Christians I’ve spoken to and read the words of have insisted that Satan as the Lord of Hell, the demon who wants to devour your soul, is a fable – a boogeyman from a bygone era, a medieval creation – and Hell isn’t a literal place. They say “Satan is a metaphor for the evil within us all” and “Hell is spiritual separation from God” (which remains undefined anyway). Even some Catholics say this, yet the Vatican still maintains that demonic possession (and subsequent necessary exorcisms) is real and not a giant bushel of rotting cheesy smegma. But I’m not addressing the New Testament literalists who believe Satan’s a real guy who lives in a real place called Hell. I’m addressing the nice, modern, moderate, once-a-week Christians who insist on the “Satan lives in us all as our impure thoughts and Hell is life without God” metaphor and probably only go to church and tick “Christian” on census forms out of habit (we’re over 25% Catholic here with 5.1 million, but there were 3.7 million “no religion” ticks in 2006 which is 18.7% of the population! Nice.).

So Satan is our un-Jesus-y impules. Really, you wishy-washy demi-Christians? No Hell or Satan or soul-hungry demons? But, if it’s all just metaphorical, why must we pledge literal spiritual allegiance to the divine good guys of this story when there aren’t any freaking demonic bad guys? If there’s no eternal torment of Hell and no Satan to poke us in the butt with a sharp stick for a billion years, why did Jesus/God make himself suffer so terribly? To make a macabre plea for attention? Why not, as an omnipotent uber-being should be able to do, just reveal himself to all people simultaneously and proclaim “I am your Creatoooooor, give me your loooooooove” instead of putting himself through such an elaborate ritual execution? I can understand martyring yourself to save countless souls from eternal torture (even though you had personally set that Hell shit up to begin with and then condemned all of us to it because of something our great^100 grandfather did without our knowledge or participation), but why would you allow yourself to be whipped and scourged and stabbed and nailed to a cross to die a slow agonising death just to get people to love you? What a bizarre cry for attention! This makes Jesus sound like the ultimate emo kid.

This modern, moderate metaphorical version of Christianity makes even less sense than the old-school “good guys v. bad guys” version. At least in the traditional Catholic school version you’ve got the classic literary good/bad scenario: good guys trying to get your soul to eternal hookers & blackjack, while bad guys want to roast your soul in a confit of your own faeces or something equally nasty. Never mind the fact that the good guys created Hell and the bad guys that populate it and never mind you’re condemned to it from birth through no action of your own – that’s an impolite question to raise so shut your mouth and put your hand down, little Timmy. But at least it sort of makes sense, from an anthropological “isn’t this primitive mythology simply fascinating?” point of view. It’s got balance – Yin and Yang, black & white, good & evil, dark & light, pleasure & pain, all on an infinite scale. The new “Satan isn’t a dude, he’s our sinful impulses” bollocks renders the Christian story of martyrdom and sacrifice completely pointless. If there’s no actual Satan and no real Hell, what exactly are we being saved from and why was the price Jesus paid so disproportionately high (and who the heck was Jesus tempted by in the desert)? It just smacks of a theological interpretation of scripture to make it seem less ridiculous – and more difficult to criticise. Aah, yes! Theologians are always doing that (find an Alister McGrath debate, if you can stomach his infuriating “I feel“, “it’s true for me” smugness, condescension and gaseous half-answers to questions requiring solid responses) – redefining God & religion in evermore infuriating, goalpost-shifting ways to make critics of religion appear pitifully ill-informed about what the “real religion” is and who the “real God” is. Never mind that your average Christian’s version of the faith isn’t anything approaching the shape-shifting versions that theologians constantly throw out in their debates with heathens, as badass ninjas whip smoke-bombs.

I really think I prefer the actual Christians who actually think Hell exists and contains malevolent spirits who wish us harm; that there one day will be a physical battle at Armageddon between the forces of good and evil (I imagine it’ll look like Peter Jackson’s battle of Mordor in LOTR: ROTK, but bigger – how aaawesome) and that Judgement Day will see people lifted bodily to Heaven while the rest of us duke it out down here for the remaining refineries and breweries and strip clubs and Aston Martin dealerships. Sure, it’s a lot more wacky and dangerous and it’s utterly evil to teach that shit to children, but I tell ya – in terms of an argument it’s a lot easier to draw a bead on a giant, red-hot barrel of bullshit than on a wispy, vaporous, barely-defined half-religion.