I just watched Selling God, ironically by Carl Christman. It is an amusing look at religion (primarily Christianity) as a product. What I think is particularly interesting about the film is that it really isn’t anti-religious. Over half of the interviews are with Christians of one form or another. Instead, the film is aggressively anti-fundamentalist. And it is liberal; one of the interviewees is Noam Chomsky. Basically, you aren’t going to see this film screened at a Baptist or Catholic gathering, but the Unitarians will doubtless combine it with a pot luck and have a great old time.
It is shocking how effective Selling God is. There is a repeated parody of a QVC ad for faith-based “Surpise Product” that is going to make your life better. It’s retail value is $666, but you can have it (if you act now) for only $499.99 (plus $9.95 for shipping and handling). If the product doesn’t work, it must be because you don’t have enough faith. This is the biggest problem with faith-based solutions. It is nowhere better seen than in AA, which offers almost nothing to people and then blames them when they don’t stay sober. It’s a tautology: working the program is how you stay sober, but if you don’t stay sober you weren’t working the program. So if drunks don’t already feel bad enough, now they feel worse that they can’t make the magic incantations of AA work for them.
This gets to a fundamental innovation of modern religions: prayer versus magic. In older religions, priests offered magic, “I’ll cast a spell and the drought will end!” The problem is that you can tell if the spell worked or not. Prayer is so much better for religious elites. Now they can tell the flock, “Pray to God. If you do it right, you will be rewarded. If you aren’t rewarded, you must have done it wrong.” Thus, religions went from “let’s kill the incompetent priest for his crumby magic” to “I’m a terrible human being who God hates.” Is it any wonder that religion is so associated with guilt?
Selling God focuses on this aspect of religion, because it is a big part of the concept of religion as commodity. Except that just like the tired platitudes of AA, religion offers nothing but a context in which God is thanked for anything good that happens and you are blamed for anything bad. A good example of this is some video from The 700 Club, where Pat Robertson tells the TV audience that some fungal infection is going away. Of course, fungal infections do go away. And of the millions of viewers, some will see an infection go away, praise God for it, and (Hopefully!) send a check to Stage Craft Pat.
But like I said, the film is not anti-religious. Many people say nice things about religion. Even I think of checking out the local Unitarians. Churches can serve important social functions. My resistance to going to a Baptist church isn’t so much the religion, but the people. I don’t think they would accept me. They certainly wouldn’t accept my beliefs given that theirs are ossified dogma.
There were a couple of quotations in the film that stood out to me. The first was Romans 7:15. It is Paul going on about what a sinner he is, and it is hilarious. But I wondered if it wasn’t just the translation. So I went and looked it up in the New American Standard Bible, which is generally considered to be the closest to the original Greek. And it is just as bad there:
For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.
When I do what I do not want to do why is it what I want that I do not want when what I want is the thing that is wanted by those who want what is not really what I want? And God said unto me, thou giveth me a headache. I want to think that the Bible is very much like The Illiad, but the truth is that much of it is not written that well.
The other quotation was from Martin Luther King:
Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion.
And that’s a good summation of Selling God. Religion that brings people together, that cares about others, and that opens minds, is a good thing. Unfortunately, such is a very unusual religion.
 What’s the difference between an alcoholic and a drunk? Drunks don’t have to go to the meetings.