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Bad religion

One of the creepiest things I’ve ever heard came from a nine-year-old I used to know. In retrospect, I should have seen it coming as she’d previously told me her church said that the Na’vi from Avatar were actually devils and that getting the red-eye effect in photos was a sign you were possessed. But one day, when a couple of her friends were happily discussing their great love of Hannah Montana, she told them she didn’t watch it. “You shouldn’t spend your time watching TV,” she said, “If you do that, you’re basically worshipping the TV. You should be spending that time praying to God.”

It took me about an hour to get the goosebumps to go down.

Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of good reasons to encourage children to watch less TV, it was just the sheer puritanical unpleasantness of the logic that got to me. “You’re basically worshipping the TV. That’s time you should spend praying to God.”. You could apply that to anything. If you read a book, you’re basically worshipping the book. That’s time you should spend praying to God. If you play outside, you’re basically worshipping your garden. That’s time you should spend praying to God. If you listen to music, you’re basically worshipping the music. If you talk to your friends and family, you’re basically worshipping your friends and family. If you think for yourself, you’re basically worshipping your brain.

It’s possible that the girl’s pastor didn’t intend to spread this message. It’s possible that he was just condemning television in particular (since it was invented in the last hundred years and is therefore evil) and just didn’t take his train of thought to the logical conclusion. Honestly, though, I doubt it. I think he wanted her to worry that she wasn’t spending enough of her leisure time praying to God. I think he wanted her to feel guilty that she wasn’t spending all of her leisure time that way. I think he wanted to teach her that the ideal spiritual life is spent doing nothing but praying, possibly with occasional breaks to eat (but possibly not, after all, when you eat dinner you’re basically worshipping brussels sprouts).

What’s more, I don’t think he did this just because he believed in the value of an ascetic, cloistered lifestyle. I think he wanted to discourage his parishioners from listening to anybody other than him. When you hold people to an impossible standard and make them torture themselves with guilt (“When you breathe, you’re basically worshipping oxygen…”), it becomes easier to control them. It becomes easy to manipulate people’s faith and use it as a tool to keep them in their place. It’s a lot like an abusive relationship, but instead of using violence and emotional blackmail to keep your victims in check, you use threats of excommunication and hellfire.

I admit, I don’t know much about what God is like. Nobody does. But I have a really hard time believing that He (or She) put us in a massive, varied world, full of wonderful things to see and experience and horror and tragedy to fight against and intended for us to ignore all of it. And, honestly, I don’t think there’s anything in the Bible (or, say, the Qua’ran or the Bhagavat Gita) to suggest that’s the case. Sooner or later you’re going to do something other than pray, if only so you’ll have something to pray about. That’s not a bad thing. You’re only in the world for 80¬†years or so, you might as well go out and have a look at it.

When a religious leader tries to guilt his congregation out of experiencing the world, it’s usually because he wants to have a monopoly on their minds. Anything you do is something you’re doing instead of praying… unless it’s something that he wants you to do. It’s never actually about God, or faith, or prayer- it’s about the powers that be asserting their hold over those they deem inferior. When you do that, you’re basically asking your congregation to worship you. And that’s time they really could spend praying to God.

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