Within the nontheistic community, which includes agnostics, atheists, and many who eschew such labels, much debate and discussion has occurred on the subject of tactics. Should religion be fought by any means necessary, including outright ridicule, as if it were a self-evident evil, under any and all circumstances? Or should a different approach be used — a friendlier one, albeit one which still argues against religion as a whole? Anyone can easily find examples of the latter approach, by doing such things as a Google search for the terms “friendly atheism,” or reading Daniel Dennett’s excellent book, Breaking the Spell, which is quite reasonable, engaging, and, well, friendly, in its tone. He is nothing like, for example, the late Christopher Hitchens, whose writing is quite angry, and therefore much more likely to cause offense to believers.
I’d like to suggest a third approach, one that focuses only on one particularly harmful type of religion, and I welcome discussion on the subject. I have noticed religion doing harm, in many ways. I have also noticed religious people doing extremely good things, and thereby making the world a better place, and I am proud to call many such people my friends. However, I have never seen good come from the actions of a religious person who subscribes to what I call “gumball-machine theology,” or GMT for short (with apologies to the residents of Greenwich). Perhaps this is where the nontheistic community should focus their efforts. Perhaps there are even religious people who will wish to help in the effort to rid the world of GMT, in order to “clean their own houses.” I hope this is a way that all reasonable, intelligent people can find common ground on the often-divisive topic of religion.
I should, of course, explain exactly what I mean by GMT. I will begin with an example from my childhood.
From approximately ages 10-14 (my ages, not his), my father was deeply involved in a variant of Buddhism known as “Soka Gakkai.” Fans or adherents of true Buddhism will find little of value here; I consider it a degenerate form of that religion, and recently learned (reading Hitchens) that Soka Gakkai was the driving ideology behind the Imperial Japanese extremists who led their country to fight on the same side as the Nazis during WWII. No one else in my family was interested in practicing Soka Gakkai, but that did not stop my father from dragging us to meetings, proselytizing to us (in this group, or call it a cult if you wish, this is called “shakabuku,” which translates to “bend and flatten” — I may have been bent, but I was not flattened), and generally making our lives completely miserable for these four long years. Soka Gakkai involves a lot of solemn chanting, in ancient Japanese, and the alleged power of such chanting is quite amazing. I actually heard the following at one of those horrible meetings: “If you need a new refrigerator, and you chant long enough, you will GET a new refrigerator.” That’s GMT in a nutshell. Need a fridge? Well, they’re stored in a celestial gumball machine. Insert ample chanting, twist the knob, and a refrigerator will fall out and land in your kitchen. True Buddhists would be both offended and embarrassed by this — and rightly so, for it is blatantly ridiculous to anyone with their brain set in the “on” position.
Another example of GMT can be found within Christianity, although not all Christians use GMT, any more than all Buddhists do. As with Soka Gakkai, “Gumball Christianity” is a degenerate form of one of the world’s major religions. Especially if you live in the American South, which is, sadly, infested with GMT, you’ll recognize the “reasoning” often found on small tracts, often left in public restrooms and similarly odd places: say this simple prayer, believe it in your heart, and you are saved forever, and can be assured until your dying day that you will see heaven when that day comes — no matter what you do in the meantime (!). GMT often includes the phrase “once saved, always saved,” and it is easy to find alleged Christians who use GMT to justify drinking like thirsty camels (alcohol, though, not water), engaging in promiscuous sex (or worse), committing the sins of gossip and slander, spreading bigotry (I’d bet that many Ku Klux Klansmen have these tracts in their back pockets, probably marking a page in Mein Kampf or The Turner Diaries), but still remaining smugly assured that heaven awaits them after death, for they, after all, bought the divine gumball. True Christians are appalled by this; they find it extremely insulting to portray God as an easily-controllable salvation device. If you believe that God created you, it simply makes no sense to also believe that you can control His decision regarding your eternal post-death abode. Non-theists are also appalled by such “reasoning,” but it can be hard to tell that they are, for you’ll typically find them laughing (they can’t help it) at such vivid displays of illogic. Often, they’re laughing to keep from crying.
Many, many people also have also cried — any many lost their lives — because of my last example of GMT: the 9/11 attacks in 2001. The hijackers of the jets on that day believed that martyrdom would secure, for them, a never-ending place of honor in a luxurious, sensual heaven. Yes, they called themselves Muslims, but this essay is no attack on Islam. My first Muslim friend ever, a Saudi Shi’ite I met at UALR, taught me long ago that he had no belief in a gumball-machine deity. He was wracked by guilt, one day, because he had been eating pepperoni pizza with some American friends. He had asked them if pepperoni contained pork (forbidden to Muslims), and had been assured by these ignorant Americans that pepperoni was pork-free, made only from beef. Thus assured, he had eaten the pizza, only to find out later he had been misinformed (perhaps deliberately, as a sick joke — he wasn’t sure), which is when his guilt began. He was sincerely worried about the fate of his immortal soul, and I did not wish to see my friend suffer. I asked him if Islam contained anything like the Catholic Sacrament of Penance (Confession), only to be told that he could pray, he could discuss the incident and ask for advice from his imam, and he could apologize to God for his transgression, but he could have no assurance forgiveness would be given to him, because the final decision would be God’s alone, and God cannot be controlled, he said, by any man, nor even any religion, nor religious organization. I respected that, offered what comfort I could, and remembered this well when the 9/11 attacks occurred. It was, no doubt, those early conversations with my friend which prevented me from falling into the trap of blaming all Muslims, rather than simply the individuals responsible, for the crimes committed on that horrible September day. The best thing that can be said for these “Gumball Muslims” (the hijackers, of course) is that they were, at least, willing to pay a very high price for their “gumball,” for they all lost their lives. That’s (deliberately) very faint praise, however. No matter how expensive the gumball, there can be no justification for what those people did — as many, many of my Muslim friends have told me in the years since 2001. Gumball Muslims offend and embarrass true Muslims, just as Gumball Christians offend and embarrass true Christians, and Gumball Buddhists offend and embarrass true Buddhists. And, of course, non-theists roll their eyes at all of this, often using these outrageous excesses to attack religion as a whole.
Whether or not you are religious, I do hope I have convinced you that GMT is a bad thing — a perversion of religion, if you will. I hope my non-theistic friends who actively oppose religion will make GMT a primary focus, for it is clearly among the most dangerous forms of religion. I hope my theistic friends will oppose GMT as well, and try to cleanse their own religions of these perversions, for such “repair work” is much easier done by insiders, rather than outsiders, in any group.
(This was originally published in December, 2009, as a Facebook-note. It has been slightly revised here.)