26 July 2012

Bad Catholic, The Oatmeal, and Indignant Responses

This morning, while lounging around the house, I decided to see what was new on Matthew Inman's supremely funny web-comic, The Oatmeal. After a few clicks (the author has some great comics) I ended up on one in particular, entitled How to Suck at Your Religion. Like much of the work on The Oatmeal, it’s really quite good.

Later on, while perusing (read: obsessively monitoring) my Facebook newsfeed I noticed a Catholic friend of mine had posted what I thought was a direct link to the comic. It turns out he was instead linking to a popular Catholic blog, Bad Catholic, which resides on Patheos’ Catholic channel. Now, despite possessing a pretty good sense of humor (the link to his email is prefaced with this note: “All death threats will be disregarded unless written in iambic pentameter” – awesome!), he unsurprisingly took issue with the comic. There were a few parts of his response I take particular issue with.

One of the biggest parts I take issue with is his faulty response to The Oatmeal’s accusation that religion gives people weird anxieties about sexuality. To quote:

No, it doesn’t. You know what does give people weird anxieties about sexuality? The current (oh-so-secular) sexual culture. We’re looking at 1 in 5 women having been raped, 1 in 3 reporting sexual abuse, 1 in 4 teenage girls contracting an STD, 2/3 of pregnancies unplanned, untold millions addicted to pornography, 63% of married women reporting they’d rather be watching a movie than having sex with their husbands, and the general degradation of the human body into an advertising, money-making machine.

Now this is not to say that a false view of Christian teaching can’t screw up your understanding of sexuality. Sure it can. This is simply to point out the obvious: The current, prevalent, secular understanding of sexuality has undoubtedly screwed up many, many people.

I’m not about to absolve our national culture of responsibility for some of our problems. We obviously have a problem with rape, teen pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases. These are all problems, and it would be asinine to deny that they aren’t. But placing these problems squarely on the lap of our supposedly "secular" culture is either profoundly ignorant or intentionally misleading.

First, we should start with the the STD and pregnancy statistics.  In this regard, the religiously conservative, to include the Catholic Church, have absolutely no right throw stones.  After all, much of the problem lies at their feet.  Is it any shock that our teen pregnancy rate, the worst in the industrialized world, is the most concentrated in abstinence-only states?  The link between reduced teen pregnancy and comprehensive sexual education isn't just supposition, it's a consistently proven fact.  Now, Mr. Barnes is also the author of the incredibly disingenuous 1Flesh site, which is dedicated to perpetuating long-standing myths about contraceptives.  Claudia, a blogger on Friendly Atheist, has done a phenomenal job responding to this site, as has Hemant Mehta the blogs owner. 

In short, you cannot condemn our "secular" culture for STD and pregnancy rates, then turn around and peddle the kind of flawed approach that abstinence-only education bases itself on that is responsible for those very problems.  And I haven't even touched the contemptible damage that this kind of dogma causes once exported to the developing world.  The work of religious missionaries in Africa, and their constant anti-contraception advocacy in Africa should be recognized as one of the contributing factors to the spread of the HIV/AIDS epidemic there.  Forget teen pregnancy, this kind of aversion to contraception is literally killing millions annually in Africa and elsewhere.

Second, I have no doubt that elements of our modern culture has helped immensely to contribute to sexual assault rates.  The problem of the rape culture in our society is well document, and is one we in the secular community have to face and face aggressively.  But to excuse the role of dogma from all spectrum's of Christianity play in maligning sex out of wedlock is to ignore a major source of those problems.  So long as one views sex as only permissible within the confines of marriage, one will inherently malign all those who choose not to follow that frankly outdated approach.  How many times have we seen people in our society casually dismiss women as "sluts" just because they've had multiple sexual partners while unmarried?  Stigmatizing sex outside of marriage doesn't help with that; quite the opposite.  And it is that very concept that leads people to explain away rape and embrace that very same rape culture.  After all, if the victim had just been more virtuous, she would have been fine!  But nooooo, she had to have the audacity of exploring their sexuality; she egged the rapists on!  It's infantile, but pervasive, and the constant stigmatization of sex helps foster it.  If we want to wipe it out, we must so too wipe out that stigmatization.

His post continues:

The basic tenet of Christianity’s teaching on sexuality, that sex, as a physical, chemical, biological, emotional and spiritual bond is a) best saved for the willful and promised bond marriage, and that b) it is both unitive and procreative and should be treated as such. If this gives you anxieties, there’s other issues going on. 

No, there bloody-well aren't other issues going on.  Sex is a natural, physical activity that should be best left to two or more consenting adults.  Sex doesn't have to have an emotional or spiritual bond.  Sometimes it's just fun, nothing more.  Now, its an absolutely important component in marriage, to be sure, but the Catholic stance that people shouldn't have sex before marriage certainly doesn't help with that.  While it is an individual couples decision to choose if they want to have sex prior to tying the knot, I certainly recommend against it.  While abstaining obviously works for some couples, going into marriage without first having sex means that you're going into said marriage completely blind to a very important aspect of your union.

I don't want to be mistaken as focusing my criticisms on Catholicism exclusively.  While it often captures my attention because of my upbringing (I was raised Catholic, confirmed, and spent my primary and secondary school years in Catholic education institutions), its certainly not my sole focus.  I discuss religious faith so frequently because, like all ideas, it deserves to be put on equal intellectual footing as any other concept and challenged.  Catholic traditions fall into that category, and thus I feel them necessary to discuss.

Now, the hysteria that this comic has spun up can be amusingly tracked on The Oatmeal's Twitter feed.  If I get time, there are one or two other responses that have been posted on there I would like to examine (my favorite is the one that inexplicably pulls out a Holocaust reference).  But there's one last little bit I would like to respond to, and that's the articles introduction:

Oh dear. Matthew Inman of the marvelous web-comic, The Oatmeal, seems to have experienced that exquisite twitch all modern atheists are doomed to experience — the I-know-what’s-best-for-you-silly-religious-people-come-heed-me spasm. This particular train of thought requires the thinker ignore the vast majority of Christian belief — which is entrenched in reason — and focus solely on minority caricatures of the creationist or the wailing-out evangelical, caricatures firmly established and grounded in The Holy Internet Worldview.
Yes, the atheist community spends a large amount of time responding to the most evangelical elements within Christianity.  We do this because they're the most aggressive at both putting their worldview center-stage and because they're also the most aggressive at attempting to impose that worldview onto secular society.  But just because we don't focus on that "vast majority" doesn't mean that their views are any-less deserving of intellectual inquiry.  That's just silly.  The "entrenched in reason" part of that quote is a good example of that.  Put simply, religious faith is by its very definition irrational.  It is the embracing of a world-view that is BASED on the fact that there is no evidence for it.  Being "less extreme" doesn't explain that problem away.


(On a lighter note, I notice Mr. Barnes is from Stubenville, home to a fantastic pizza-style.  Cold cheese on a hot crust.  Somebody opened up a pizzeria that specialized in it near my university, and it quickly became a regular late-night snack location)

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