The Battle for Zachary's Brain, VII: Counter-Church/The Absurdity of Jonah

There is nothing that is too obvious of an absurdity to be firmly planted in the human head as long as you begin to instill before the age of five by constantly repeating it with an air of great seriousness.

– Arthur Schopenhauer

Followers of the riveting “Zachary’s Brain” series of posts will know that the narrative is not a Gothic horror tale…but something that is just as disturbing: resisting the religious programming of a child.

His step-mother, belonging to a vanilla-Jesus sect, got Dad involved, of course, because he wants to be on the right side of her, though while married to my wife, he was a lapsed Catholic, a confirmed skeptic/agnostic who refused communion and mocked the Pope.

So now there’s a lot of church in Zachary’s life – church activities, services, quite a bit of Christian BS. My wife weeps over the cruelty of making a child believe lies. And she acts. There is no WAY this boy is going to grow up into a Christian.


We know what they're telling Zachary. It's all there, in the Holy Babble. So we've adopted two strategies for what we call "counter-church" ("anti-" sounded too anti-), since we have him every other Sunday: one is reframing; the other is anticipatory information and argumentation.

We told him of the cruelty and insanity of the Noah and Binding of Isaac stories. We've told him that one day, when there’s been lots of warm, fuzzy Baby Jesus, they will tell him about hell. And this is exactly what they did.

Because of our efforts, he already knew there was no such place. And even now we've been able to tell him that religious people’s preoccupation with death leads them to do all sorts of nutty things. He gets that, even at 8.

He notes that he gets in trouble by asking questions at church, whereas he learns by asking questions in school. Big difference.

Atheist Bible studies

We also read the Bible to him: passages that describe how the earth swallowed people up or a mountain belched fire – and how these poor, ignorant shepherds thought it was God.

But there’s more: grownups STILL believe it! We give him examples of what they are required to believe.

We read him Deuteronomy 25:11, which says that a woman interfering in a fight and touching the other man’s genitals is to have her hand cut off. “Show no mercy.”

We told him about the Torah’s death penalties for adultery, homosexuality, practicing other religions, and disrespecting your parents.

We showed him the agreement between God and Abraham, in Genesis 17: loyalty in exchange for foreskins, including slaves. Owch!

God and penises

We asked him what a nutjob God would want with so many foreskins. And why he was so obsessed with penises. Why not mandate the amputation of a little toe? Because God wants to show you who’s really in charge of procreative power around here. And it’s not you. (On several occasions, God punishes women with infertility – closes their wombs, as the text puts it.)

This week, for some reason, the counter-church Bible reading was Jonah. Maybe he was getting it at church. Almost any excursion into the Holy Babble is a time-trip into another world. So it is with Jonah. Take a few minutes and reacquaint yourself with the stories people are required to believe -- and to find meaningful and relevant!

We read him an atheist version, which asked how Jonah could have avoided being dissolved by the fish's gastric juices.

Impertinent questions

We warned him about the go-to argument he's likely to hear: if God can make the laws of physics, he can change them. This is a shrewd way to fill in the gaps in stories with more stories. Zach should then ask, if he has the balls, "Well, why doesn't God do any of that stuff anymore? [And later:] Is that his whole bag of tricks? Or maybe it's just a story. [And still later:] Why doesn't God punish Las Vegas?"

Now that would get him in trouble -- and it would show religion's true colors. Zach will learn that when you are seriously invested in a story, you will go to great lengths to defend it.

The Jonah story is sort of Job-like. The poor guy suffers, then God forgives Nineveh anyway, after they all put on sackcloth, even their animals (3:8)'s all really stupid, as is the pissing contest between God and Jonah at the end (God wins).

Oh, yeah, and Jonah actually prays to God while in the fish's belly.  What a loyal fellow!  No matter what God does, you kiss his ass.

Dawkins' question about whether religious programming is a form of child abuse deserves constant reconsideration. Growing up is complicated enough. Zach shouldn't have to struggle through all of this.

PS. We are now in the run-up to Easter, when the weirdest and bloodiest elements of Christianity come together.  We can explain to him that people can die and come back to life. They can be dead for many minutes; they can spend months or years in a coma.  Also, a lot of legends and stories have demigods coming back to life.  But there is a certain kind of dead that you do not come back from.

That covers the Resurrection BS.  As for the cockamamie bargain "I'll sacrifice myself so that God forgives you, you sinner...", we'll have to see what they tell him about that.

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Comment by Alan Perlman on April 18, 2014 at 10:08am

Rodney also said, "For my ninth birthday, my father got me a bat -- but it flew away."

Absolutely right - Bible is best viewed as a slapstick, vaudeville show.  God bops you around, you whine and try to please him, so he bops you some more.   

Comment by jay H on April 18, 2014 at 6:46am

correcting my brain fart.. should be Rodney Dangerfield.. 

Comment by jay H on April 18, 2014 at 6:43am

The problem with the book of Jonah is that people take it seriously. It should be viewed as humor, Jonah is the bronze age Henny Youngman... never gets any respect.

Tries to run away, gets dumped in the ocean, eaten by a fish, vomited out ... laugh, folks, this is funny

Then he finally delivers his doom and gloom message, and this victims fake him out an 'repent'. God cuts a deal with the victims and leaves old Jonah looking like a fool....

So he sits there and waits for his vindication. But God's not done messing with him yet... gives him some shade, which Jonah really likes.... then sends a worm to kill it.

The story is a lot different if you don't take it seriously.

Maybe in the future, someone will build a religion based on watching the Blues Brothers ;)

Comment by Alan Perlman on April 15, 2014 at 7:36pm

Michael, Thanks for kind words. I wonder how many kids get anything resembling counter-church.  I think some potentially skeptical parents are cowed into conformity (like my Dad) and never give kids the kind of in-your-face refutation we're giving Zach.  

Religion enjoys SUCH privileged status. OF COURSE the Passover story did not happen, but few Jews have the guts to say that. 

Comment by Michael Penn on April 14, 2014 at 7:47pm

 It sounds like you are doing very well with him, Alan. I'm sure he's going to get to where he comes to you telling what religion has taught him now so he can hear the counterpart. Nice to have a child grow up not being afraid.

I remember once being young and in a revival. Everyone was moaning and praying at the end of the service. I told the pastor's son that I just knew that if I stepped on a crack in the concrete at the door of a room, the devil would get me. The son told his dad, the pastor, and the man concluded that his son should pray with me. How nice.

What they should have done is to have classes that teach the falacy of this. It just does not happen and is not real. Of course, if they start teaching this stuff religion will be out of business.

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