I’m sure the banjo is a wonderful musical instrument. I’m not tempted to take it up, but I’m pretty sure the world is a better place because there are banjo players in it.

Banjo players don’t get a lot of respect, though. The banjo is on the short list of musical instruments that people like to make jokes about. Banjo, viola, trombone, accordion, and bagpipes — they all get abused from time to time.

Q: What’s the range of the viola? A: About 50 yards, if you have a good arm.

Q: What’s the difference between a chicken crossing the road and a trombone player crossing the road? A: The chicken is on his way to a gig.

I happen to play the cello. I only know one cello joke. (Q: What’s the difference between a cello and a coffin? A: The coffin has the dead guy on the inside.) There aren’t a lot of cello jokes, because the cello just happens to be widely admired.

Nonetheless, my enjoyment of playing the cello is, I’m sure, no different qualitatively from the enjoyment felt by a banjo player or an accordion player. It’s all good.

Here’s the terrible secret that makes a lot of people very uncomfortable: Religion is no different from playing the banjo or the accordion.

If it pleases you to paint yourself blue and dance naked around an oak tree, that’s terrific. If it pleases you to mumble phrases in Latin while sitting in a building with lots of stained glass windows, that’s terrific. If it pleases you to bow down toward Mecca five times a day while reciting phrases in Arabic, that’s terrific. If it pleases you to take peyote and sit in a sweat lodge hallucinating all night long, that’s terrific.

And it’s nobody’s business but your own. If you get tired of taking peyote and decide to start mumbling phrases in Latin, go for it.

If a banjo player got mad and started hitting people when they made banjo jokes, what would we call him? We’d call him an asshole. No matter what your lifestyle choice, you have to expect to get lampooned once in a while. If you’re a mature adult, you roll with it. You force yourself to chuckle politely, even if you think the joke wasn’t very funny.

Anyone who thinks their religion should never be criticized or ridiculed is an asshole. If they try to shut off the criticism, that’s a lot worse — but if you even think for a moment that your religion is so wonderful and admirable that it should be exempt from criticism or lampooning, you’re an asshole.

It’s gonna happen. Deal with it.

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13 thoughts on “Religion and Banjo Playing

    1. Well, of course. You’re absolutely right. It’s also the case that most atheists (including, I think I can safely say, myself) ARE in fact intellectually superior. But that’s quite a different thing from saying that being an atheist MAKES one intellectually superior. Nobody is claiming such a silly thing, Karen. I do hope you’re capable of understanding the difference, because there IS a clear difference.

      Atheism is, however, superior to religious belief as a philosophy, and for a very simple reason: Atheism is fact-based. Religion is NOT fact-based. There are people who think that atheism and religious belief are somehow equivalent to one another. You, Karen, have been known to refer to atheists as “fundamentalists.” This is the kind of category error I’m talking about. Fundamentalism, as the term is commonly understood, is a rock-solid belief system — a belief system that the believer refuses to consider altering, no matter what. But atheism isn’t like that. Atheism is a result of scientific thinking and scientific investigation of the real world, and scientists are, by definition, people who are willing to admit they’re wrong if and when contrary evidence is presented.

      If you would like to demonstrate that atheism is incorrect as a philosophy and a view of the universe, your task is simple (though quite daunting): All you have to do is provide scientifically verifiable evidence of the existence of an entity that might reasonably be referred to as “God.” If you could do that, most of the atheists in the world — and certainly all of the atheists who are intellectually honest — would change their view of the universe! That’s why atheism is NOT fundamentalist.

      The idea that atheism and religious belief are somehow equivalent, that atheists are somehow “dogmatic” or “fundamentalist,” is nothing more than a new and not very clever version of the view (as Isaac Asimov expressed it), that “my ignorant opinion is as valid as your facts.” No, the ignorant opinions of religious believers are NOT as valid as atheism. Sorry; they’re just not.

      I’m quite aware that most Christians in the U.S. don’t believe that the stories in Genesis are literally true — although a sizable minority do believe exactly that. These people are ignorant. They are wrong, and I’m sure you understand as well as I do that they’re wrong. What you seem to fail to understand is that ALL religious belief is, in the end, cut from the same cloth. It’s all an attempt to salvage some sort of sentimental attachment to a set of emotionally satisfying ideas that, in spite of whatever visceral appeal they may have, have no better scientific underpinning than the stories in Genesis.

      And if you think I’m wrong about that, all you have to do is prove it scientifically. Your opinion on the subject has no weight and no relevance, unless it is backed up by facts.

      I don’t know if you realize it, Karen, but when scientific study of the physical world began in earnest in the 16th century, it was for the most part specifically undertaken for the purpose of understanding and getting closer to “God.” The idea was that God could best be understood by studying His handiwork, since everybody was certain He had created the physical world. The difficulty was that as the decades and centuries rolled along, scientists were unable to find any indication that “God” had anything to do with how the physical universe worked. There was no “God” to be found anywhere, no matter how diligently people looked for evidence that would support the God hypothesis.

      Atheism is simply an acknowledgment of that fact. It’s an acknowledgment that we need to come up with an alternative to the “God” hypothesis, because that hypothesis has proven to be 100% unsupported by any sort of discoverable facts.

      That’s not fundamentalism. It may be fatalistic, and it isn’t comforting, but it’s not fundamentalism. It’s reality.

      1. Jim, I’ll copy here what I just added to your FB page. Let’s just agree that you are intellectually superior to whoever you seem to need to feel intellectually superior to.

        Jim, for what is’ worth, I am by definition an atheist. I subscribe to no theism. None of them work for me or resonate with me.

        I have been with a number of people when they have died. I can say that one can sense a presence of the person after they have died. Can I prove that? No. Nor do I need to. To me, it is simply energy. According to the “laws” of physics, energy can’t be destroyed. Do I need that to feel better about life or death? No. I’m simply reporting my observation. I’m very clear that I will die, and that when I die, the life I have been experiencing in this body comes to an end. And that’s the life that I know. We live on in the hearts of those we’ve touched, or those we have pissed off. But, I will still be dead. I will have no more experience of life as the sentient human being I am now.

        I do not believe that one goes to heaven or hell after we die. I do not believe heaven or hell exist as an afterlife. Heaven and hell exist right here during our lives. We have experiences that sometimes feel are hellish, and others that are blissful.

        For some, dying is more peaceful than it is for others. I like how Raymond Carver describes it in “The Errand”: “There were no human voices, no everyday sounds. There was only beauty, peace, and the grandeur of death.”

        I thought it was not only ridiculous but insensitive when people challenged Christopher Hitchens about his atheism when he knew he was dying. Good for him for sticking with his view of the world. A friend’s husband is dying of ALS and remains an atheist. Good for him.

        No one can prove to you that you are either right or wrong about being an atheist. One can only respect it, and I do. But you are not intellectually superior for having no theism, anymore than I am.

  1. In a world without God, there is no evil or good. Those terms are surely derivative. There is only weak and strong ( maybe not even that.) Revel in yourself Jim. Why even discuss an alternative?

    1. I can’t quite tell whether you’re being ironic, Andy — and I’m not sure what you mean in this context by “derivative.” Nevertheless, I’ll take your comment seriously.

      There is, as far as we humans can tell, no powerful invisible being who could possibly be described using the word “God.” Nonetheless, good and evil are quite real. Even rock-ribbed atheists can tell the difference!

      Our human conception of good is rooted in the instincts that evolution has provided for us. We have an instinct to care for our children, for example. We feel that it’s good to do so, because those of our ancestors who failed to have that feeling didn’t pass on as many of their genes to future generations. Now that we have this instinct, we perceive a person who does not care for his or her children as evil. This perception is NOT absolute. It does not come from any “God,” It comes from our instincts. We have an instinct to share with those who are less fortunate, even when they aren’t our kin — and again, science can demonstrate exactly why such an instinct exists.

      But there’s another profound reason why “God” is irrelevant in a discussion of good and evil. If you’re a believer, you’ll probably have great difficulty understanding this, but I’ll point it out anyway, on the off-chance that you’ll take it to heart.

      The question that has to be asked of believers is this: Are good actions only good because “God” dictates that we humans engage in those actions; or, on the contrary, is the nature of good actions (and thus of their opposite) defined somewhere outside of the will of “God”? It sort of has to be one or the other. If it’s the latter, then we don’t need to posit any sort of “God” to have a sense of good and evil, because those things are defined without reference to “God.” But if it’s the former — if an action is good only because “God” instructs us to do it and evil only because “God” instructs us to abstain from it — then what happens if “God” changes his mind? What happens if, tomorrow, “God” instructs you to kill and eat your own children? Would you do so?

      In answering this question, you’ll have to assume, first, that “God” truly does exist, and second, that He or She has some unmistakable method of communicating with you. You’re able to determine that the instructions definitely come from “God.” And you’ve been instructed to kill and eat your own children. Would you do it?

      If your answer is, “No,” then you’re admitting that your own sense of good and evil has nothing whatever to do with your conception of “God.” But if your answer is, “Yes, I would do it,” then you’re clearly a monster. You’re evil. And all sensible people would agree that you are. What’s more, a “God” who would give you such instructions is also evil. (The God of the Old Testament quite routinely ordered up mass slaughter. He was an evil old motherfucker, and no mistake.)

      Of course, the religious believer will try to weasel out of this dilemma by saying, “I know God would never tell me to do that!” But this is cheating. If that’s your response, then, once again, you’re placing your own conception of good and evil _above_ your conception of “God.” You’re also asserting that “God” couldn’t possibly change his mind about anything that’s important to you, which would mean he’s not much of a “supreme” being.

      No, “God” is not the source of good, whatever you may have been told in church. Sorry.

      1. You assign good and evil based on qualities of instinct ? and Evolution? Charming. but why?

        “Natural selection is the blind watchmaker, blind because it does not see ahead, does not plan consequences, has no purpose in view. Yet the living results of natural selection overwhelmingly impress us with the appearance of design as if by a master watchmaker, impress us with the illusion of design and planning- R Dawkins.

        “Nonetheless” is not an answer. Nature has no sense of good and evil. Molecules aren’t good or evil. Energy has no moral value. There is no science to back up your statement that includes ” We Humans” . Evolution is based on propagation. In fact, the strongest survive. People of religion and people without religion have committed the same atrocities because they could ( probably had a lot to do with instinct.) Your ideas on morality reek more of elitism than science or logic. Im sure you don’t want that.

        So you want to assign to some “sensible people” the definition of evil ? That’s the basis of your argument?

        “Sensible people” have harmed and/or killed millions throughout history. “Sensible” people are sensible only to themselves as they destroy. Im sure Hitler or Stalin seemed sensible to many. So you assign morality based upon your ideas of what you feel is “in bounds” of evil or good under the guise of instinctual sensibilities ( give me a break!) Based on what? Moreover based on fear I suggest. What gives anyone the right to decide for me the grey areas of my morality. You nor I are certainly no better than any other being.

        So in your example, if someone can not physically care for their children – they are ” evil” ?- i don’t particularly think so. They may need some help if they are a family member but they are not evil. You might have to go back to the drawing board on that statement. With that logic, if I can’t help them because Im physically unable, you might call me “evil”. Maybe I made a mistake. Maybe I’m not psychologically equipped for family life; does that make me “evil” also? Who decides that? Your argument is not clear. Tell me how instinct plays out to decide that I’m evil and your not? and what happens to “evil ” people in your world? … spooky. they just disappear i guess.

        So people who have abortions are evil… interesting.

        Instinct is also “kill or be killed” also known as “Human Aggression”. Just because you live in a refined environment doesn’t mean the instinct of man disappears ( regardless of what you were taught). Place yourself in the right circumstances , you too will commit that evil you have given up for ” instinct “. Instinct has made you evil- now what will you do ? Look to nature and you will find atrocities that you will probably say are ” evil”. You would be wrong of course because instinct has a part to play in how “atrocities” maintain a species.

        whether you call something “evil” or “good” has nothing to do with nature, instinct, nor evolution. its just science…

        Im not sure to whom you are referring to after your weak premise (maybe trying to convince yourself?) Im ok with my beliefs.

        Why hide behind some new age blanket of comfort anyway ? The old saying has been proven time and time again: “Right is Might.” Look to history for plenty of examples. If man is his own authority, If man is only subject to his natural state, there is no room for good nor evil. Don’t be so wishy washy. Why worry about it anyway? you seem to have existence figured out.

        Nice !You answered your own question regarding the derivative nature of the terms for Good and Evil. Good for you.

      2. Andy, I could explain to you precisely how you have misunderstood evolution. I could point out the deliberate misrepresentations you’ve tossed in (a typical tactic, sad to say, for people who want to confuse the issue in order to shore up their sense of superiority). But it would serve little purpose. You have demonstrated that you’re impervious to real understanding.

        Briefly, you seem to equate the process of evolution with “the strongest survive.” (This is your phrase.) This is a simplistic and incorrect view of how evolution works. I don’t know where you picked it up — possibly someone in your church told you that?

        You’re quite correct that nature has no sense of good and evil. But you and I _do_ have such a sense. It evolved because those of our ancestors who had such a sense produced more children who grew up to produce more children. THAT is how evolution works. It involves not one’s personal survival, but the survival of one’s offspring. Because human babies have an extended period of helplessness compared to most species, adults who fail to care for their offspring produce, on average, fewer offspring who live to adulthood. Any emotion that causes you to be devoted to your children will be positively selected for. That’s how natural selection works.

        We care more for those with whom we share lots of genes than we do for strangers. That’s why there are wars — because being cruel toward strangers is easy. Being cruel toward the members of your tribe causes feelings of guilt. And again, those feelings arise because they were beneficial to our ancestors.

        I notice that you entirely failed to address my thought experiment. What would you do if “God” commanded you to kill and eat your own children? Possibly you know the answer, but find it shoots an inconvenient hole in your belief system. Or possibly you avoided even considering the question because it made you too uncomfortable. In either event, you’ve demonstrated your intellectual weakness.

        I don’t propose to prolong in this discussion. Either you’re a troll, or you’re sadly misinformed about some basic things. In either event, further discussion would be pointless. If you disagree, then please — just walk away convinced you’re right. Continue to hang out with people who assure you you’re right. Doing so may or may not make you a danger to others — I can’t predict that — but it will certainly make you happy.

  2. The first act of any religion’s creation myth is to separate the whole into two. God divides the firmament into the day and the night, the light from the dark. Brahma says, “It is,” and nothing happens until Shiva says, “It is not,” and then not only does the universe come into being but also the duality. From there it’s all downhill, earth from the sea, fish, and fowl and the creatures that walk on the earth, right up to the knowledge go good and evil and the naming of individuals (to use one familiar myth as example). It tends to explain why we feel lost as individuals (whether from an evolution that worked better by binding us in cooperative groups–families, tribes, clans, city states….), unlike tigers that spend a solidarity life apart from mating, and why we desire a “return” to a relationship with a god head, or understanding and absorption into a totality that is the physical universe and beyond. So the concept has value, like listening to tales of brave Ulysses, but then bosses appear and turn the religion into a political system of rules and hierarchies that are easier for people to deal with (“follow these rules and you will get what you want, or, the alternative, work very hard and devote yourself to attaining an understanding individually, a dangerous path as it makes the “followers” uneasy and as a mob they are dangerous to the iconoclast). Back to the banjo.

    1. Wow Ron. Your comment was very interesting and calmly invites consideration. I believe your response may help reveal those psychological needs we may share: possibly the need for internal balance and reconciling a dual nature of ourselves? IMO, that premise would go far in beginning a discussion on the need of establishing good/evil dichotomy outside the realm of religious influence. I agree that people have the tendency to take something of need/merit and tinker with it for control (“the bosses”). Thus we may inevitably distort the truths we seek. A point that fascinates me is that distortion and how it occurs. Many times large groups of people may give up on ( or become jaded to ) fundamental insight due to the distortions that occur over time and attempt to reinvent themselves and their belief systems. We see this model as archaeological evidence is uncovered that raises the bar on our interpretation and analysis of ancient cultures. Its important to look for the source of that merit and what fulfills those need. With that in mind, Your words are reminiscent of Joseph Campbell. I hope my comment follows in the spirit of yours. And Hey! you did not have to insult anyone to make it. Thank You for being so insightful and conscientious. I hope you see this before the moderator erases.Thanks again for saving the discussion. I can’t help but think you would be easy to speak with.

  3. I’m not sure why just some of my comments have been erased. As you have no response to my reconciliation attempts, a better “more intelligent” response is to erase all of my comments as a courtesy. Thank you and peace. You won’t hear from me again. Could you erase all instead of censor? … Thank you so much.

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