Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Lead us not into temptation...

Coming fast on the heels of the TDEC's recent religious experience an alert reader* forwarded this charming website to me. What is it, you ask, too lazy to click on a damned link? Well, I'll tell you- it's a company that sells pajamas for children. Not such a big deal, right? Well, mostly right. What sets this company apart is that it sells very special pajamas- godly pajamas. Or, perhaps more accurately, armor of godly pajamas.

Yes indeed, folks, this website literally sells pajamas for boys and girls that are styled to resemble some sort of weird crusader armor, but with less blood and bile smeared across the front. The pajamas even include a shield for the child to carry across one arm- presumably for warding off evil spirits in the night who also happen to be terrified to stuffed pillow-like objects. Since this whole idea is just too... um... unique for me to describe, allow me to reproduce the website's own explanation below:

Now, I could get well and truly snarky here but I'm going to attempt to refrain. This is at least in part because, when I was a child, I wore some truly ridiculous shit to bed,** and so don't feel like I'm in a position to criticize. More importantly, however, I hold back because I think I see a connection between this and something else I've been looking at recently- a book on evangelical christianity.

I refer to James Ault, Jr.'s book Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church. At this year's ASA meetings I obtained a copy of this book and have been reading it rather eagerly since- a fairly easy thing to accomplish given how many delays I've suffered during air travel of late. Ault has done something remarkable in this book- he has managed to produce an intriguing ethnography of a fundamentalist congregation that shows them, and their views, with nuance and no small amount of sympathy. As it happens, it appears that Ault's experiences in this project led him to develop religious belief. Be that as it may, he still does an excellent job of comparing and contrasting secular viewpoints with religious viewpoints, all within the context of lived experience. As such, I think his book warrants reading.***

One of the points that emerges from his narrative, however, is that these tight fundamentalist congregations seem to derive much of their strength not from the doctrine, per se, but rather from the social system. Congregants certainly develop strong doctrinal views, but in many cases what seems to produce the real commitment is the social support network. Of course, as Ault notes, this support network is a mixed blessing as the same tools that allow the congregation to work for you also permit it to work against you. So, the same tight social relationships that can help members over emotional and economic hurdles can also be used to enforce a substantial degree of conformity. Still, in an uncertain world, it's easy to see why people might want to take refuge in such tight relationships. It seems only natural, and most sociologists will not be terribly surprised.

It is this ability of congregations to provide a refuge that makes Ault's book and the godly p.j.'s stick together in my mind. It has more and more appeared to me that some branches of christianity- indeed of many different religions, but christianity is our focus du jour- thrive on nurturing fear. I don't mean fear of the world here, either. Being concerned that you might not make rent, or that you may get sick, or that your marriage might fail, is something many people have to deal with. A religion that can help people overcome such challenges isn't all bad, and is indeed serving a useful purpose in people's lives. No, I mean that some branches of various religions seem determined to actually create fear. Don't have enough material issues to worry about? Your personal life going good? Feel secure at home? Well, you shouldn't! There may be demons trying to steal your soul via the heinous power of the New York Times! The Devil is creeping into your bedroom window and poisoning your wife with ideas about equality! Your soul could, at any moment be damned by some inconsequential act and your only recourse is to pray as hard and as often as you can that god will forgive your sorry ass.

I exaggerate,**** but the point is valid. Much of religious rhetoric is saturated with efforts to create a need for the religious product, to create fear of things that are unobservable, unknowable, and whose effects largely won't be felt UNLESS there is an afterlife of the precise type spoken of by religious authorities themselves. It's almost like local news coverage***** but vastly more effective. As a former salesman, I really have to respect the success of this enterprise. We've long been amazed that product marketing can convince folks that they won't be popular if they don't own a particular thing, but popularity is in some way a real phenomenon. High schoolers and sociologists both understand the potential consequences of being unpopular. The fear bred by some religions, however, is a different and even more impressive animal because the faith is "sold" as protection from a threat that only exists if you believe in the religion in the first place. That's almost equivalent to buying hip waders to wear around the house to protect yourself from the venomous snakes that get delivered with the waders.

And I guess that's what is so fascinating to me about the pajamas. What is the real purpose of these things? To comfort children as they sleep? Or to remind them that they are in constant peril without the protection of the One True Faith?******

I'm afraid I know the answer to that already.

* Sorry Bookmobile, someone else beat you to it.

** Doubtless my Sainted Girlfriend would argue that I still do, since my sleepwear commonly includes shirts that are so old and frayed that they're an embarrassment to textiles everywhere.

*** Though, I must confess, I have not yet finished it myself.

**** The hell I do.

***** "Want to know about the common household product that can destroy the entire western hemisphere? What about devices your children use to see porn? Tune in at 8:00 and find out about this risk to YOUR family!"

****** Pick your own "one true faith." Don't worry, I'll wait. There are an awful lot of them, so take your time.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post, Drek.

I don't think your snakes and waders analogy was quite right, though. It implies that the same leap of faith (the purchase) brings the fear and the protection. But it's really much more insidious and sinister than that. Religion is more analogous to a stranger pouring the snakes out onto your rug, then saying, "don't worry: I sell waders."

In fact this religion business has been pouring snakes all over the world for centuries now, quite indiscriminately. They poured some in my bedroom when I was a kid, and even though I didn't see them, I was always real nervous about where I stepped.

That’s the thing about fear: you don’t have to completely believe in something to imagine it and worry about it…and it’s just such an imagining that over time starts to seem real. And even if you refuse to believe it -- even if you rely on your rational mind to organize your experience-- there’s still doubt - still holes in the basement where the snakes may be hiding. Every now and then, when you’re tired and it’s dark, you catch a hiss or a slither that wipes all your rational armor away for a moment or two.

After years of this stressful reptilian siege, it’s liable to seem easier just to wear the waders. And then…well, people who wear waders around when there are no snakes just look like lunatics, so it’s not long before you feel compelled to explain your idiotic behavior by telling your inquisitive neighbor kids about those snakes, even going so far as to pour an empty vat of them into the kids’ bedrooms as evidence.

And you know…some people will just swear they see those (motherfucking) snakes right off the bat. I’ll never quite forgive them.

[Maybe the better analogy is the supervillain who slyly reveals that he is the only one who knows the location of the antidote to the poison you just unknowingly drank… bwahahaha. “Where is it?? TELL ME WHERE IT IS!!!” Who among us wouldn’t drink whatever vial of colored liquid he pointed us toward? My goodness, you’re sweating and you’re heart’s pounding -- those are some of the poison’s symptoms! You’d better hurry.]

Thursday, August 24, 2006 12:46:00 PM  
Blogger Rebekah Ravenscroft-Scott said...

ah, another great post on religion! I find it very interesting that the ethnographer succummed to the lure of it all. especially as I do fieldwork that also has its fair share of sirens. did you know that the Protestant architect of the basillica in Montreal was so taken with the project that he converted to Catholicism and is buried there? at least that's what the guide book said, ha! I do worry that I'll end up in a twelve-step group for the rest of my life... and I must admit I'm a little jealous of those jammies, when I was a fundie (as a child) we had nothing like that. It was all Bible memorizing and praying and stuff.

Thursday, August 24, 2006 1:19:00 PM  
Blogger TDEC said...

Things like this post make me wish I were a little more well-informed and articulate. Let me just say this - the things said in both post and comments generalise issues prevalent in the fundamentalist christian community to the whole of "this religion business". I know that you know that, Drek, but it does no harm to make it clear. Certainly none of the Christians among my friends seem to live their lives in fear of hell, neither protestants nor catholics. Certainly, as far as I can tell, none of them have been terrified into religion.

I have doubt at all that there are many people who are in the catch-22 situation described. I don't question than religion warps a great many people when it abused (and it often is). But if we can't make the distinctions where the need them in Christianity, then how can we ever hope to make them for any other religion - like Islam. The differences cannot be glossed over.

Thursday, August 24, 2006 2:50:00 PM  
Blogger Warbler said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Thursday, August 24, 2006 4:36:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

TDEC-- You're right. My comment above should have pointed out that many religious communities don't use fear as a weapon. But of course, they're not the ones buying god armor for their kids. However, you'll have to admit, too, that fear is an important element of religious doctrine nearly unversally. Or are you not a simple, God-fearing man?

It's also worth pointing out that religions probably learned it from politicians.

Thursday, August 24, 2006 4:40:00 PM  
Blogger Drek said...


You make some reasonable points but my post was fairly explicit about it being only some branches of christianity and other religions that use fear prominently as a device for encouraging devotion (e.g. "It has more and more appeared to me that some branches of christianity- indeed of many different religions, but christianity is our focus du jour- thrive on nurturing fear" [emphasis added]).

That said, I do think that virtually all religions use fear to some degree to encourage devotion, it's just that some of them engage in the explicit "The devil will get 'ya" type, while others limit themselves to the, "Believe or you'll never be truly happy" type. I think the former is more disturbing, but the latter is in many ways far more pernicious.

I think you're right that most people don't end up in a religion because they're afraid of metaphysical snakes, but that's more or less because most people adhere to whatever faith they're brought up in. Whether this is due to simple habit, fear of the consequences of switching, or something else, I'm not qualified to say. I will say, however, that I know quite a few religious people that I consider to be fantastic people- Slag being a prime example- but I rarely find that it is their religion that has made them so. I think Slag would have been a good person if his family has raised him Buddhist. Often it seems that people do good things in spite of their faith, rather than because of it.

I should probably note here that the Quakers are an exceptional religion in my view, with which I have very few problems, but that's not the point.

You're absolutely right that we need to attend to meaningful distinctions between both denominations and religious systems, but we also shouldn't ignore significant commonalities. That some of those commonalities are unpleasant is, if anything, just more reason to notice them.

Friday, August 25, 2006 9:46:00 AM  

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