Godless, by Pete Hautman
|May 10, 2012||Posted by Jane Lu under culture, lifestyle, reviews|
Today, there are about 7.006 billion of people on the Earth, as estimated by the United States Census Bureau. Of these 7 billion people, it is estimated that 5.1 billion to 6.8 billion have a religion, which is 73% to 97% of the world’s population – a very large proportion. Yet have you ever asked yourself: what is a religion?
In the book Godless, by Pete Hautman, Jason Bock is a 16-year-old atheist who becomes tired of his religious parents and their Catholicism. Instead, Jason decides to invent a new god – “the Ten Legged God,” which is the town’s water tower. After all, as Jason himself reasons, “water is life.” It starts off as a joke when Jason names his religion Chutengodianism, and as the religion grows Jason and his friends Shin, Dan Grant, Magda Price, and Henry Stagg start to create rules and even mocking names and titles such as “Chief Kahuna” and “High Priestess.” At first, the followers of Chutengodianism are all clear that the worship and religion is just for fun. But when Shin becomes obsessed with writing the Chutengodianism bible and claiming the water tower is speaking through him, everything starts to get out of control as Jason tries desperately to keep his faith pure. One night, the group holds a mass meeting at the “godhead”: the top of the water tower. Everything goes well until Henry falls, when the police are called in and the group ends up in a great deal of trouble.
Looking back at the question I posed earlier, the Oxford Online Dictionary defines religion as “a particular system of faith and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.” So then I ask: is religion good or evil?
In fact, religion has many benefits. It can improve health, both physical and mental; in 1996, a study found a direct link between church attendance and life expectancy. In my opinion, this is so because most religion encourages a healthy lifestyle. For instance, there may be regulations on smoking or alcohol consumption. Religion also gives hope. Take Christianity as an example: miracles mentioned in the Bible could provide hope, as could the idea that God will always be with us and that we can always rely on him, which could in turn improve mental health. This might be the reason for religion’s ability to act as a cure for mental illnesses such as depression.
Religion also advocates peace and love. In Christianity, it is believed that we should love our neighbours and even our enemies; in Buddhism, salvation and unselfishness is believed to avoid suffering; in Islam, believers should have good moral values in order to receive God’s love. Indeed, through the ideals of peace and love, religion might have a positive social effect.
Yet, in Godless, the religion Chutengodianism does not seem to have the positive effects mentioned above. In Hautman’s response to one review, he mentions that “ … religion itself can be a powerful and sometimes dangerous thing, with or without faith, with or without a true God.”
Criticism of religion was first raised in Greece in the 5th century BC by Diagoras of Melos, who stood up against the Greek religion. Nowadays, a lot of people still accuse religion of brainwashing, being harmful to society by encouraging holy wars, and discriminating against homosexuals and women.
Yet I think it is the thought of how faith could be “dangerous with or without a true God” that makes the book interesting. Think of Hitler and how he used “faith” to brainwash Germans into convicting the Jewish people; think of Stalin and how he had made use of the same idea to gain power and eventually rise as a tyrant; more recently, think of Osama Bin Laden and his belief in the Islamic militant organization Al-Qaeda to launch global attacks and threaten the lives of many. Religion seems to be one of the tactics that tyrants use to gain absolute obedience from his or her followers. Tyrants rule with absolute power and require absolute obedience and not a single question from their people. Over time, the people accept what they are told from their ruler; they believe and follow. A faith or a religion – or, to be exact, a belief (since religion is a belief in God or Gods, while a belief does not require the existence of gods) – too extreme, even without a god, could also be a dangerous thing. Belief is powerful. It can act as a persuasive argument, a motivation, or even a tool to manipulate, control, and make its followers act blindly.
On the other hand, though there are strong relationships between religion and morality, morality can still be found without religion, without a God. Think of humanism and how it brought justice and ethics without a belief in supernatural powers. The philosopher Bernard Williams once said: “Either one’s motives for following the moral word of God are moral motives, or they are not. If they are, then one is already equipped with moral motivations, and the introduction of God adds nothing extra. But if they are not moral motives, then they will be motives of such a kind that they cannot appropriately motivate morality at all … we reach the conclusion that any appeal to God in this connection either adds to nothing at all, or it adds the wrong sort of thing.”
In many religions, a god tells us we have to be good and develop moral values in order to be a good follower. Not to say that a god does not exist, whether spiritually or physically, but what if the Bible had not mentioned God at all? Would Christians still believe?
Religion, after all, is a belief. A religion uses supernatural beings to explain and persuade people to believe, while a belief may just appeal to the philosophy of morality without religion. Without faith, without its believers, both will fall. But perhaps it is the development of too-extreme faith that has led to the extreme ideas and activities that can make a religion or belief dangerous. All in all, whether a religion is dangerous or not depends not only on its moral values but also to a certain extent on how we approach and believe it.