Sunday, August 29, 2010

Rape As Metaphor: Going Too Far? [Rated R]

Trivializing that which should never be trivialized is always a risky business. It would certainly be unwise to minimize something so ominous, so treacherous, as rape. In fact, to do so would be a kind of ‘crime’ in and of itself.
As writers we often use metaphors to help us tell our stories. A timely metaphor can transport a reader from a place he may not be familiar with to a place he instantly recognizes; or it can move one to imagine what he believes about one place and transpose those beliefs to another setting entirely. The possibilities with metaphor are endless.
Yet every now and again we come across a situation where our instinct to proceed is put in check, hindered by the very same sensibilities that urge us on. While it is only natural to have one’s creative impulses challenged from time to time, when these challenges take the form of suggestions that we censor ourselves, we are compelled to resist. Not because we are righteous, but because we respect what is good and virtuous about freedom and the creative process. The call to censor an idea simply to avoid offending a social or political constituency is not, as a rule, a good idea.
If I were to encounter criticism from feminists saying I could not know the pain of rape and that it would not be appropriate for me to compare childhood religious indoctrination with the crime of rape, my response would be (1) as a metaphor it is valid; (2) as a writer I must value the freedom to explore ideas above the feelings of those I might offend, as long as my disregard is measured and not wanton or reckless; and (3) as an ‘honorary’ male feminist myself, I would never betray the cause of feminism by committing the aforementioned crime of trivializing sexual assault.

The Rape of a Young Mind
My indoctrination into the world of religion was begun in earnest at the age of approximately 30 days with my baptism into the Catholic faith. As I was too young to speak for myself, I was unable to voice my opinion on the matter. From as early as I can remember, the concept of an all-knowing, all-powerful god-being lording over the universe was becoming the centerpiece of a well orchestrated assault on my intellect and my psyche. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, of course, but that was part of the nefarious allure of being captivated by these clever adult authority figures. As children, we relied on them for sustenance and approval, yet subtly—and disgustingly—their approval came at a price: conformity. These parents, guardians and administrators wielded so much power over their child minions, they could even engineer the conformity they demanded should they be met with a disagreeable or non-conforming expression.
Quite honestly, I sensed the inviolability of the intellect early on in life. There was something suspicious about having ideas beyond my ability to negotiate or comprehend ritualistically shoved down my throat. The reason for this ritual assault, no doubt, was to win my loyalty so I could serve my masters and propagate the planet with yet more inauthentic Christians. It reminds me of the “fruit from the poisonous tree” doctrine in legal circles. If one aspect of gathered evidence is deemed defective, hence inadmissible, then any evidence, or fruit, arising out of that tainted tree of evidence is also deemed inadmissible. Clearly, the entire enterprise of childhood religious indoctrination is morally corrupt. As such, these memberships in the Church are tainted as fruit from the poisonous process that made them so-called Christians in the first place. Many of these children are not freely and voluntarily who they say they are. They are automatons, bent on pleasing those who would dare to withhold their affections if their children did not abide by their dictates.
Several important things about this process give validity to the rape metaphor, and one in particular is especially instructive: the feeling of survival and recovery that time, distance and perspective gives to those of us who have managed to get past our cruel experiences. One continually recurring theme throughout my early years of counseling and therapy was the religious exploitation of my youth. The secular, human, and liberal values I later gravitated toward gave me a taste of the kind of intellectual freedom I instinctively knew had been missing; and because of this, I came to despise—for a very long time—those who conspired to deny me this freedom. Just as the body was meant to be free, so too were the mind and spirit meant to be free.

The first thing that happens before a person is raped is that his movements are restricted—arms and legs often restrained by being bound together. When a mind is about to be raped, access to rational, thought-provoking literature is restricted, intelligent books and periodicals bound together and thrown into the garbage as if they were evil influences. In a physical rape, the bodily orifices are violated by a sick and twisted human being who has lost his way. In the metaphorical mind fuck that is religious indoctrination of the very young, the orifice of the intellect is penetrated by the protruding ‘penis’ of a mindlessly imbecilic and fatuous dogma. In each assault the aggressor leaves his mark as a token of his narcissistic triumph, a sample with which to soil and taint his victim. After a real rape, it sometimes takes many years for victims to acknowledge their assault and get the help they need to work through all the painful emotions standing in the way of love, laughter and living well again. Amazingly, the virtual victim of the metaphorical religious rape has a similar journey to take. He must also come to terms with his transgressors, in order that he might find peace and live a full and rewarding life.

Ultimately, I am a writer—not a victim of rape. But when I told my therapist not long ago “it felt like my mind and my spirit were raped as a young child,” I was calling upon the powers of the imagination to conjure the vile essence of an actual rape, then—metaphorically—substituted mind for body. She understood completely and a door was opened. Along this path were many dark detours, but eventually they always led to wonderful places—places where understanding and forgiveness stood a much better chance of realizing their healing potential.
To rape victims everywhere: yours is a pain like no other, never to be trivialized. To the writers of the world: do justice to your metaphors, because every once in a while you may be asked to rationalize your use of one.

Monday, August 16, 2010

"Religulous": Easy Pickins

Movie Review: "Religulous"
Written by Bill Maher
Directed by Larry Charles
Released in 2008

Ever since AT&T tricked us into buying their premium TV package we've been getting all the HBO channels, and one of the best things on HBO is Real Time with Bill Maher. A few things about Maher's show I find very enjoyable: 1. he makes fun of conservatives; 2. he makes fun of religion; and 3. he does it all while dropping the occasional "f" bomb, which relieves my occasionally boiling psyche like nothing else.

Maher also wrote and produced the 2008 documentary film, Religulous. (See the 2-minute trailer.) The title of the film, cleverly, is derived from a combination of the words "religion" and "ridiculous", a word scheme known as a portmanteau. Religulous (See the full movie; 1 hr. 41 min.) is right up this irreverent comedian's alley. Maher tries to sit down and talk seriously about many of the teachings of the world's great religions with a number of their sycophants, but he can't keep himself from descending into sarcastic sniping and pot shot humor; after all it's who he is and what he does. He's so good at it in fact, more often than not those he interviews are made to look like idiots. Of course most of Maher's audience believes these interviewees to be total idiots to begin with, so it works out just fine. What makes these defenders of faith appear so pathetic is their dead pan seriousness in the face of Maher's dead pan humor, each incredulously bug-eyed as to the other's seemingly incomprehensible point of view.

From one encounter to the next, we are left snickering at the religulous and their preposterous utterances. When US Sen. Mark Pryor is asked to point out some of the benefits of religion, he notes that long ago primitive cultures were constantly at war. Yes, he really makes the blunder of suggesting that religion and modernism have made a positive impact on this front, and right on cue the producers fill the screen with scenes of Sen. Pryor's progress: bombs, missiles, tanks and warships—in all their modern, resplendent and exploding glory. Then there's the rotund, religious artifact salesperson who gives us as proof that miracles exist the story of the time he needed some water, so he got a glass, stuck his hand out the window and noted that it started to rain. A rather pathetic miracle. Now if it had rained frogs, as Maher suggests, he might have had a point.

Maher spends a lot of time taking aim at easy targets: the virgin birth of Mary, the resurrection of Jesus, Jonah surviving inside that whale, the earth being 6,000 years old, humans coexisting with dinosaurs, etc., etc., etc. He's not exactly looking for defenders of St. Thomas Aquinas and his five proofs for the existence of God so he can engage in high-brow philosophical debates. That would require real work. Instead, he has devised a product that needs no instruction manual and virtually sells itself: a religious bullshit detector in the form of an easy-to-open, watch-it-right-on-your-computer, two-beverage movie. It's not exactly Avatar 3-D, but for some of us it's a thrill nonetheless.

Religulous may not be the greatest movie as documentaries go, but it is smart and funny; it shifts, overlaps, and interjects scenes to great effect; and it moves right along. It also capitalizes in a very timely way on the growing acceptance of atheism, enhancing its cachet along the way. Much of the criticism aimed at religion in the movie is simplistic but effective. And for all its lack of nuance, Religulous nonetheless drives home the point that religions teach some pretty weird things, and put into positions of authority and representation some fairly unsophisticated people.

Religulous may be preaching to the proverbial choir, but to its credit there's at least a little something being offered up as food for thought: Is religion a benign contrivance that stands up to the normative powers of reason, or is it intellectually nescient and ultimately nihilistic, and as such, does it represent a grave threat to our very survival? In Religulous Bill Maher tells us where he stands, and has the cojones to ask us where we stand.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


Personal Log—Star Date 0802-2010: "Reflexions"
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Now that I am free from religious incarceration, I sense a call to duty, specifically a call to honor our first duty as thinking beings—our duty to the truth.

What truth specifically am I referring to? Certainly not the "truth" of atheism, insofar as it is said to represent a school of thought possessing enlightenment beyond all others. The average atheist claims no such ultimately enlightened perspective. Rather he prefers, and affirms, the rational over the irrational, the reasonable over the unreasonable, and the real over the unreal.

As to the contention many atheists are merely substituting one dogmatic curriculum for another, this is a hollow and indefensible claim with all the functionality of a smoke screen. It bears repeating that atheism and rationalism are not dogmas but rather methods of reasoning, and as such stand in stark contrast to the stultifying regimen of religious indoctrination. 

One hard truth is that religious thinking demands of its subjects they relinquish their natural desire to question everything and submit their intellects to the forces of slavery. Conformity and obedience are the pillars upon which the elaborate mythology of "god" is built. This blind submission represents the very antithesis to free thinking. Far from being intolerant, we atheists are merely being critical. It is intellectually dishonest to exempt any ideology from responsible criticism. Religion has enjoyed its privileged status far too long. It is merely one world view among many; and like all world views, it too, is wholly fallible.

I go to great lengths to avoid descending into disrespect when criticizing religious thinking and religious people. And if it is true some atheists are simply repeating the same crime of moral hubris and judgment so popular among believers, we can only hope ours is a better, more humane judgment, one deserving of its exercise. 

For me the emotional battle of standing up to generations of religiosity, though never completely resolved, has given way to what is essentially an intellectual pursuit, one that is challenging and rewarding. Any hostility we atheists may sometimes project is best understood in the light of our experiences. It is we who have been aggrieved, forced into religious concentration camps and compelled to relent in the face of grotesque psychological abuse. It is here where one's uniqueness is neither cultivated nor given refuge; where love itself is denied those who hesitate to submit.

The truth we humanists strive to expose is the truth about ourselves—our aspirations, our flaws; our resourcefulness, our limitations. To better understand, and improve, the human condition is our goal. We are caught up in the discernible and the accessible, not the indiscernible, inaccessible or ethereal. When held up to the natural light of realism, the construct of religion appears nakedly misguided.

Do atheists believe in anything? Of course we do. We believe in man's ability to use what his senses can convey—and what his ability to reason can affirm—to give meaning and purpose to life.

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