When God Despises Our Humanness

A Review of Vitaly Malkin’s Dangerous Illusions: How Religion Deprives Us of Happiness

A challenge that theists have never met—as far as I know they’re not even working on it—is to show doubters and skeptics where we can find reliable, verifiable data about God. The catch is that all theists must agree, “Yes, that’s where to find it.” The endeavor flounders because theists have never been able to agree on which God data are reliable and verifiable. They don’t agree on whose revelations, scriptures, visions, and prayers are authentic. Just try, for example, to get a handle on which Christianity is the right one. In other words, humans have bungled religion badly: It’s a mess.

Vitaly Malkin’s book, Dangerous Illusions: How Religion Deprives Us of Happiness, is a penetrating examination of the mess. While Malkin is a tough critic, he has written about religion with admirable restraint, sympathy, and abundant eloquence. As we contemplate our current political morass, it’s clear that, as a species, we have welcomed being over-entertained (massively so, since the advent of TV in the 1950s), and, as a consequence, being chronically, disastrously under-educated. About religion especially. While I can’t speak of Patron Saints, I can cite Malkin as a superb role model; driven by curiosity, he abandoned entertainment in favor of rigorous study, determined to share informed opinions.

It was by chance that he had seen a movie about family love that “was filled with so many nauseating lies…all the diversity and richness of a romantic relationship was reduced to a vulgar and hypocritical romantic ideal.” (p. 11) His mind was flooded with many ideas that could be pursued to portray life and love honestly. He could have shrugged it off, but “…the ineradicable obstinacy that has been living in me since early childhood has not allowed me to retreat.” (p. 12) And he arrived at a standard that humanity has ignored, to its great detriment:

“Only the mind that never parts with its faithful friend and squire, common sense, is able to assess the surrounding reality and help us find happiness in it.” (p. 13) Countless systems of piety and theology have been born and endured—so much human suffering has resulted—because rational thought, the common sense by which we navigate our daily lives, has been ignored. Or should we say, common sense as tutored, brought to heel, and refined by rational thought. The easy assumption that lightning is hurled by angry gods, for example, was killed by rational inquiry.

Malkin cautions his readers to be aware of chimeras. In Greek mythology, a chimera was a monster, but this is a perfect metaphor: “Ancient reason had every confidence in itself and so defined a ‘chimera’ as anything that was not reasonable… though they poison our lives, we feed and nurture—until it is too late, and they pick out our eyes. Ever since we were children and until we die, we can be attacked these chimeras.” (p. 17)

Pick out our eyes: that has been the role of faith. Malkin describes this monster:

• “Faith is a particular psychological state that is characterized by a readiness to accept any idea at face value. Sometimes it is even worse than that, and an idea that is a priori un-provable is accepted as true. Faith doesn’t want to be encumbered by the burden of proof. Usually, faith doesn’t just accept an entirely unfounded thesis as true, but actually sees the absence of evidence as valuable in itself.” (p. 20)

• “Theologians claimed that once Man has been shown absolute and universal divine truth through Revelation, commandments, and dogma, he has no need to waste time on further enquiries into philosophy and science. All truths have been discovered already and further searches simply detract Man from God. Divine truth must be accepted without any discussion or investigation.” (p. 26)

Malkin surveys this general attitude as expressed in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, The faith-theology approach to discovering truth accounts for the mess that religion has become. Once people are secure in their own version of the truth, and are heavily invested in it emotionally—especially the theologians—the realities of the world are ignored or rationalized. But religious ‘truths’ are chimeras:

“Chimeras are dangerous illusions, because they are imposed on people by ethical standards that are contrary to common sense and biological nature. When one tries to live by these standards the results are internal neuroses and poorly controlled aggression; departing from them creates a sense of guilt in the face of society in general.” (p. 52)

But theologians—those with heavy emotional investment in God—can’t let go of the chimeras, one of which is theodicy. Laypeople commonly don’t know the word, although they know a few clich├ęs for the exoneration God in the face of suffering. Theologians have worked overtime on theodicy because they sense that suffering is the major threat to personal theism:

“The main purpose of theodicy was to combine the uncombinable—the idealized world of the divine with the real world of evil. What was required was to offer decisive and irrefutable proof that the existence of evil in no way contradicts the religions definition of God as almighty and good.” (p. 63)

I hope (against hope?) that Malkin’s book falls into the hands of Christian laypeople, although I have found them, overwhelmingly, to be an incurious bunch. I urge them to pay attention to his forty-page review of theodicies. In my writing I have focused on how Christians stumble in their efforts to make excuses for God, hence I was stunned to read Malkin’s review of Jewish theodicies in the wake of the Holocaust; he offers a blunt rebuke. What could be more obvious?

“The Holocaust is an example of the evil which is not compatible with God’s existence. After the Holocaust it is impossible to justify Yahweh. The Holocaust has carved a wide and infinitely deep crevice between Jewish religious doctrine and practical life, over which one could never leap or build a bridge…

“So why not bring this whole project to an end—not just the question of theodicy but the whole God question too? Why not return God to the place whence He came—the place of non-being?” (p. 102)

In pursuit of the book’s subtitle, How Religion Deprives Us of Happiness, Malkin provides abundant detail on religion’s attempt to override evolution’s engineering. We have been gifted with extraordinary capacity for pleasure in the act of procreating; but monotheism imagined a god who, while he wanted us to “be fruitful and multiply,” didn’t sanction anything that would diminish our devotion to him. What could be a bigger distraction than sex? Thus, pleasure-seeking itself became a major taboo, resulting in the diminishment of happiness.

It’s a wonder, really, that humans have been okay with this; have endured being so cruelly manipulated by religious bureaucrats, those who claim to have superior insights into God. There are four giant chapters in the Malkin book that should shock the devout into realization that they’ve been bamboozled, swindled out of so much enjoyment of life:

5, The Great Battle Against Pleasure
6, Sex Is God’s Greatest Enemy
7, Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me
8, The Crusade Against Onanism

Hasn’t religion got anything better to do? Malkin includes the story of St. Anthony, who dwelt for decades in a desert cave, alone and filthy. There were no women anywhere near, but artists have depicted him heroically resisting nude female bodies. Malkin’s friend Andrius, as a lad, perked up in catechism when the priest showed three paintings depicting St. Anthony resisting the naked ladies: the sin of female flesh. Andrius was impressed, but not by the heroism of Anthony. Sad to say, the saint’s admirers through the centuries have not noticed the blatant misogyny masquerading as piety.

Asceticism, even if not at the level practiced by Anthony, is a potent blend of pride and guilt. Nor is it a thing of the past. Ex-priest Stephen Uhl, in his 2007 book, Out of God’s Closet, depicts the senseless priestly ideal: “We learned to humble ourselves, leave all the world and family, give up property and pleasures, and follow Christ. This harsh lifestyle stressed humility, lowliness, personal unworthiness, and guilt…” Especially when he masturbated, I’m guessing.

It’s all mindless, yet it’s holy. Why in the world do people put themselves through this? In the four big chapters, Malkin shows the strong traditions that continue to put the faithful in such jeopardy.

Evolution engineered us for pleasure, but pious fanatics—apparently afraid of their own erections—libeled this most natural gift as lust. Malkin will have none of it:

“I suggest you accept and love lust with all your heart in order to abandon religion and get back your self-respect. In return you will obtain sexual freedom and the right to passionate human sex and bright carnal love…you should reappropriate lust and abandon yourself to the miraculous pleasures of life!” (pp. 289-290)

It is a great irony that so many Christians have grown up. St. Anthony, if encountered in person, would give most of them the creeps. “A modern person, “ Malkin points out, “has a hard time understanding why the Christian idea of struggling against human nature has lasted so long…it is especially difficult to understand today when hundreds of millions of people who consider themselves to be Christian live a completely unchristian life: nearly all of the population practice sex outside of marriage, if not oral, anal and homosexual sex.” (p. 284)

I suspect most Christians would be amazed at what has been passed off as Christian piety for centuries; it is truly appalling, beginning even with the New Testament. Malkin has shown the colossal waste of human talent and energy that has resulted from the conviction that God despises our humanness.

I must point out, by the way, that those three paintings of St. Anthony resisting the naked ladies are included in Dangerous Illusions: How Religion Deprives Us of Happiness (pp. 302-304). In fact, this qualifies as an art book: there are dozens of glossy painting and photographs illustrating Malkin’s story as it unfolds. There is abundant visual representation of the case again dangerous illusions.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was reissued last year by Tellectual Press with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

The Cure-for-Christianity Library© is here.