“A Life-Changing Experience” (An Atheist Goes to Church)

“A Life-Changing Experience” (An Atheist Goes to Church)

A few weeks ago, I got a flier stuck on my door:


Come out to hear the specific instructions given by God in the Garden of Eden.
Afterwards, let’s cool off by having an ice cream treat!

Bring your tape recorders, laptops, notepads, pens, and pencils to be a
part of what will be a life-changing experience for you.

I figured with a buildup like that, I should probably attend. “Life-changing experience” sounded pretty good, especially with so many exclamation points in the description. Maybe some miraculous healings or special effects, maybe even some magic tricks. And failing all else, at least there’d be ice cream. Plus, it was held at the church at the end of my street, well within walking distance, so I wouldn’t even have to go anywhere.

So on Saturday at 2:00, I showed up with my laptop and digital recorder. I even brought a half-gallon carton of ice cream from the UMD dairy because it seemed like a neighborly thing to do.

If you’re reading this on ooblick.com, rather than through a feed aggregator, you’ve probably noticed that the big red A’s are still there, so it’s not a spoiler to say that the “life-changing experience” didn’t change my life.

I’ll skip over the introductory service and warm-up band, except to note that it was interesting to see a service from a tradition other than the one I was raised in. If the Russian Orthodox church had had services more like these, I might’ve been in less of a hurry to leave.

Anyway, the talk was entitled “Lessons in the Garden”, and was allegedly based on Genesis 2:15:

And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.

and 3:6:

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.

In his introduction, he said:

It’s amazing to me, as I read the Scripture, the amount of things that took place at the garden at that tree, that we dismiss. It’s almost become just a cute story.

I said “allegedly” above, because the introductory sentence above makes it sound as if a close reading of Genesis reveals details that one might miss upon a casual reading. Instead, what he did was, well, a charitable way of putting it might be that he treated the text as a jazz musician might treat a piece he was riffing on: something to touch on at the beginning, and come back to whenever he found a motif or riff that he liked, but never constrained by it. A less charitable way of putting it would be to say that he gave an hour-long right-wing sermon that ignored any parts of the text that he didn’t like, while making up copious amounts of bullshit to support whatever point he was making at the time.

For instance, if you haven’t read Genesis in a while, you might be surprised to realize that 3:6, above, is pretty much the entire “Eve tempts Adam” scene (except that they don’t have names yet at this point). But according to Brown, Adam was positively lusting after the fruit, but used his own wife as a guinea pig to see if it would kill her before he tried it.

Did I say “kill”? Yeah: Brown quoted Genesis 2:17, where God says:

But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

Except that he omitted “in the day that thou eatest thereof”. Normally, I’d chalk this up to wanting to keep things moving along, except that later he made a point about Adam and Eve not knowing when the fruit would kill them. (I’ll give him this much, though: I don’t think he ever said the fruit was an apple.)

In Brown’s mind, Adam was a crap husband because he didn’t protect his wife or stop her from eating to her doom. But this exegesis, like so many others, ignores the crucial fact that this wasn’t just any old magic fruit, it was the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. In other words, before this they were innocents who didn’t know right from wrong. According to people like Ken Ham and Kent Hovind, there was no death in the garden before the fall. So A&E couldn’t have known what “dying” meant, since they had never seen it happen. Nor could they have known that it was wrong to disobey God, since they didn’t know what “right” and “wrong” even meant. (This is confirmed by 3:22: “And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil”.) Basically, it’s a just-so story about the loss of innocence, and growing up, and having to learn to work for a living.

I digress. But to thank you for staying with me this far, here’s an apropos episode of Sassy Gay Friend (h/t Jen):

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gQhkzYVlLl8&hl=en_US&fs=1]

The rest of the talk mostly gave up all pretense of being commentary on Genesis, and ping-ponged from guilt trip, to slippery slope, to the need for obedience to God, to guilt, to casual homophobia, to support for traditional gender roles and other stereotypes, to praising women, to disparaging them, and back to guilt.

Above all, what I saw was a mental virus protecting and propagating itself by parasitising this man’s mind. Several times, he underscored the idea of obedience. Never did he say anything about the rules in the Bible having to make sense. Indeed, he said that while it’s hard to refrain from having sex before marriage, but that God asks us to do difficult things.

I used to be religious. Now I’m obedient.

So don’t look for reasons why it’s best to follow the rules. Just follow them and don’t ask questions. (BTW, Jen the Blag Hag has another timely post about this kind of mentality.)

He should feel right at home with Islam, which derives its very name from the word for “obedience”.

You have to remove anyone from your life who pushes you away from the word of God.

This was the part that convinced me that I was watching a mind virus. Terp fans don’t have rules against being friends with Duke fans. Trekkers don’t refrain from talking to Star Wars fans. Fiscal conservatives don’t avoid arguments with fiscal liberals. And yet, religions—especially conservative ones—often seem to have rules against coming into contact with other ideas, or with people who don’t accept the religion in question.

(Granted, Brown doesn’t push this idea as far as it’s been pushed in other times and places. He doesn’t, for instance, call for the death penalty for unbelievers. But that’s probably simply because even deeply religious people in America today realize that such behavior is barbaric.)

Cui bono? Who profits from this rule? Arguably, pastors, imams, priests, and other religious leaders do, because they stand to lose their flock and the social status that comes with it. But more generally, it is not people, but the religion itself, a bundle of ideas, that profits. It’s a way of protecting itself from damage and dissolution by erecting defenses in the host minds that it inhabits.

But all in all, it was an interesting experience. Oh, and the ice cream was good.