Theological Memeology: Don’t Push ‘Religion’ on Me!
Ok, so this can barely be counted as a meme. But it’s “meme enough” to warrant a response. Here we have a world-famous comedian defining the very essence of religion. Think about that for a moment. George Carlin is about to reveal something of the heart of what a religion is a does. Here is his evaluation:
Religion is like a pair of shoes… find one that works for you, but don’t make me wear your shoes.
Taking a Closer Look. Like a meme, this has lots of meaning packed into a short quip. So, as we’ve done with the last two memes we’ve evaluated, let’s dissect this claim into its constituent parts
- Leading analogy: “Religion is like a pair of shoes…”
- Command based on pragmatic definition of religion: “…find one that works for you…”
- Command based on ethical evaluation: “…don’t make me wear your shoes.”
Each phrase helps to construct the implicit argument of this meme. First, there’s the analogy, religion is like a pair of shoes. That is to say, Carlin seems to believe that religion is like an interchangeable accessory. It’s not essential to our existence—the way a foot, or some essential part of the body itself is. But this analogy is made clearer in the second phrase. Carlin tells his listener to do something, so it’s a command: Find one that works for you. Here’s the logic. Since religion is like an interchangeable accessory, find one that fits your style. This approach to religion is built on a pragmatic definition of religion. On this view, religion isn’t about understanding the true nature of reality and properly aligning oneself with it. The pragmatic approach to religion says that the right religion for you is the one that works for you. Notice what I wrote twice there. The operative phrase in the pragmatic approach is “for you.” Of course, this naturally entails religious relativism.
The last part of these meme is the most problematic. We’ll look at it closer below, but for now we’ll examine it closer. Here Carlin closes (or, at least the meme does) with an ethical command: Don’t push your religion! Again, here’s the logic restated in the language I’ve been using throughout this discussion.
- Statement of the essence of religion: Religion is a non-essential accessory to adorn individual preference
- Religious relativism stated: Individual preferences are not rooted in objective reality and differ from person to person
- Ethical assertion based on religious relativism. Therefore, it is wrong to force a person to abandon their personal preferences regarding a matter that is essentially an accessory to adorn individuality (religion)
Response. Rarely does a relativist explicitly condemn another position, not if they want to be consistent. You see once you start telling people what to do and what to believe you’ve smuggled ethical and religious absolutes back into the discussion. Whenever you say “you ought to…” or “You ought not to …” you are assuming a standard. If it’s a relative standard the person isn’t obligated to change their behavior in conformity to it. If it is an absolute ethic standard for religious belief it’s self-refuting.
But there’s something else that needs to be pointed out. Normally when someone says something like this the goal is to shame the person who 1) believes passionately, and 2) commends their faith to others. It should go without saying that these guns are normally pointed at religiously conservative Christians. How dare the small-minded Christian push their religion on someone else? So the reasoning of this meme is employed to take the moral high ground and promote (postmodern) tolerance. But there’s a crippling problem here: Commenting faith in Jesus to others (evangelism) is part of the Christian faith (see. Matt. 28). Evangelism is not a tangential aspect of Christian practice. For those that believe that Jesus is God himself and the master of their lives, evangelism is a command that shapes their actions. What Carlin is really saying is Christians ought not to practice their religion. You can be a Christian so long as you don’t believe (that what Jesus says directs your life) and behave (go and tell others about him) as a Christian.
And what does this boil down to? Carlin does the very thing he tells others not to do. He is “imposing” his own secular worldview on others. He’s cramming our feet into his shoes.