For millennia peoples across the globe have searched for a means of getting closer to and finding god. Elaborate ceremony, choreographed rituals, ornate clothing, enormous houses of worship and convoluted oral histories have all been employed to this task. But the simple answer to god’s discovery has been right under our noses, or tongues, the entire time. We just need to skip the mid-day meal and god will appear before us. God is a chicken sandwich left uneaten.
The three dominant monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all suffer similar appeals to the ridiculous. Virgin birth, parting seas, resurrection, talking snakes, 400-year-old men, geocentrism, six-day creation, theodicy and prayer are just a few examples where reason is abandoned in the search for god. Another is the idea that missing one meal during the day is a spiritual experience.
The association between self-denial and god is common in most religions. Christians have their 40 days of semi-fasting (which means semi-eating) during Lent to commemorate the death and resurrection of Christ. Jews have Yom Kippur, one day of fasting and repentance to atone for past sins. Muslims have Ramadan, the holy month during which fasting is meant to promote self-restraint and heighten spirituality.
What is so curious about these supposed episodes of “self-denial” is how little is being denied in the effort to get closer to god. If missing a meal is a criterion for spirituality, every anorexic supermodel is going straight to heaven. For such an important goal we offer very little. Let’s take Ramadan as our example since we are now in the midst of that celebration. Muslims “fast” from the first light of dawn, about an hour or so before sunrise, until the sun sets. So you wake up, have an early big breakfast, work during the day, come home and have dinner. The only thing you’ve done is miss lunch. That is not fasting, and that is not much self-restraint. Yet the holiday is explained in terms of the most amazing feats of self-denial as exemplified by quotes in my local newspaper in a story about Ramadan:
“Hopefully one grows each year as part of denying the physical self and growing the spiritual self.”
“Anyone who is not Muslim will see it as punishment. But we look at it spiritually, as a way to be closer to God.”
“Fasting is the most interesting thing I do each year” because it exposes me to the “essence of hunger.”
One would think these suffering people have endured a three-week hunger strike consuming nothing but water. They skipped lunch.
Christianity is no less ridiculous in its claims of fasting. Spirituality is reduced to avoiding potato chips between lunch and dinner. During Lent, adherents simply must restrict themselves to one full meal in a day, with no food between meals. That meal can be a huge brunch, with rich desserts. Throw in some wine, too. Jews have elaborate psychological preparations so they can go an entire 25 hours without stuffing themselves. Go to a synagogue, take a nap, sniff spices, don’t talk about food…
C’mon people, get a grip. If missing a meal is all that is necessary to get close to god, the threshold is awfully low. No wonder that seeing an image of Jesus in some burnt toast is considered a miracle. This is the problem with religion. We have this deeply ingrained taboo against calling out the obviously ridiculous for what it is for fear of offending. Well let’s throw caution to the wind to state the incredibly self-evident: folks, missing a meal or two during the day does not constitute deprivation, does not qualify as self-sacrifice, and does not count as self-denial. To claim otherwise is an embarrassing admission of an extraordinarily shallow concept of suffering. If missing lunch is all that is required to know god or to gain self-understanding or to grow spiritually, those goals are not terribly interesting. Such an easy and cheap entry fee diminishes the value of the prize, or reveals so-called fasting for the self-delusion that it really is. If you feel righteous for missing lunch or going a day without eating, you live a life too sheltered. If you really want to get closer to god, switch places with one of the billion human beings who go to bed hungry every night. If one skipped meal is a means of “growing the spiritual self” just think what you’ll experience with ceaseless pangs of hunger every minute of every day, with no relief in sight.
Pain and Piety
Even more intriguing than the idea that self-sacrifice is necessary to know god is that the assumed association between pain and piety largely goes unquestioned or is dismissed with the useless idea that “god works in mysterious ways.” What cruel god would require us to suffer to know him? The guy is supposed to be all-powerful and all-knowing. He just as easily could have created a world in which every human is born with a deep understanding of god with no further ado. Heck, he could appear before us right now if he felt like materializing today as a giant talking turnip in Area 51. He could have us born into a world of plenty, in good health, full of joy never to be diminished by sadness.
Since that utopian ideal is not our reality, we need to make elaborate excuses for how an omniscient benevolent god could tolerate the pain, suffering, hunger, disease, crime, war and depraved behaviors we witness today and throughout human history. Our first feeble attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable is to fabricate the notion of divinely-granted free will as a get-out-of-jail pass for god. But the pass turns out to be a fraud sold to us by unscrupulous scalpers. If god is all-powerful, he could have created a species of humans who chose to use the gift of free will only for good. That his creations chose to behave badly means that such behavior was either god’s original intent, or that god is not all-knowing. Perhaps a benevolent god created a world with evil, but he chose to do so for good reasons. He created evil, but is not evil himself. This is the heart of the argument for those who believe that evil and suffering are necessary in order to know god. Well, that is simply another example of solving the problem by defining it away, and ultimately contributes nothing. The counterargument is trivially obvious. Since god is all-powerful, he could have just as easily designed the world such that suffering was not required to know him.
But the boss apparently did not get that memo. Since pain and suffering seem to be divine gifts, we celebrate god by simulating pain and suffering as a way to get closer to our cruel deity. Without the real thing, though. We pretend by pretending to fast, but with a few meals thrown in so we do not actually get hungry. Our attempts at piety through pain are as comical as they are misguided. Ramadan, Lent and Yom Kippur are not periods of self-denial but another collective example of religion’s absurdity. Please, let’s stop with the nonsense that a foregone brioche is a spiritual experience.