An epiphany on the way that many people perceive religion and salvation occurred to me many years ago, while debating with a street preacher in the South Park Blocks of Portland State University. There are several objections to me learning a lesson from this interchange, one of the foremost being that arguing with a street preacher is kind of like arguing that it makes no sense that the Professor can build a radio out of a coconut, but he can not fix the boat: it is an obvious point, and usually not one worth getting in to. Also, street preachers, even when they are sane represent both a lowest common denominator and a fringe of what religion is about, so that I am making a straw man out of this man's arguments. However, I would say I didn't turn him into a straw man: he did that himself. Also, while not everyone has such a reductionist belief system, enough do that I think the dialogue will be illuminating.
The street preacher (named "Daniel" for the two or three people reading this who might have been at PSU during that period), was going into one of the basics of street preaching: the horrors of hell, the wonders of heaven, and the sole ability of Jesus to deliver us from the former and to the latter. Now, unlike many people on the PSU campus, I didn't want to just heckle him, I wanted to honestly find out the core of his beliefs. So I tried to question the role of Jesus by analogy: If Jesus was the only way to get to heaven, what was the value of Jesus by himself? Wouldn't it be somewhat like the value of the #17 bus, the only Tri-Met bus that goes to Sauvie Island? (Sauvie Island is a rural area located a dozen miles north of Portland, and is one of the more far-flung places that the Portland bus system goes). Of course, anyone who wants to go to Sauvie Island can only get there through riding this bus (this being Portland, where no one has cars), but that doesn't make the bus intrinsically valuable: it is just a means to an end. So what is the intrinsic value of Jesus or his teachings? Is Jesus merely the only bus that goes to heaven?
Behind my simple analogy, there is a pretty complicated set of questions about intrinsic value, means and ends, and the final goal of life. And a good street preacher could have answered it without getting tied down in arguments. But it seemed to go right over this particular man's head, which, much more than his belief that I was hellbound, made me realize that further discussions would be along the line of pointing out plot holes in Gilligan's Island. What he answered was that my analogy was incorrect: after all, there are many ways to get to Sauvie Island, so Jesus wasn't like a bus to Sauvie Island. Jesus was more a rocket to the moon, because there was only one way to get to Heaven. Thus, he missed the point of my argument, and actually reinforced him. Jesus was, to him, a means to an end, just the method that would work best for achieving a desired result. And this is what I mean by constructing a teleology, and this is what I mean by constructing a nihilism.
Under this system of religion, God is just a very efficient method of extracting pleasure (because what else is more pleasurable than Heaven?), and those who choose to reject the formula are guilty of having the wrong technique.
This is also why arguments of many religious people with many people who claim to be irreligious are so violent, irreconcilable and (to me): tiresome. The most intractable battles are always sectarian ones, and "religion" versus "science" is one of these. As I have previously pointed out, these groups have similar beliefs about the objectivity of the world, and they also have similar beliefs of the use of the world: as a resource to be extracted. The difference between Richard Dawkins and Daniel the street preacher is merely in what techniques they use to extract those resources.
And what is it actually like to be on Sauvie Island? When the bus drops you off in a gravel parking lot, there is not actually a lot in walking distance to see, but on the right day, the environment and differences can be subtly enveloping. Although, perhaps after having had one such visit, further visits will be disappointing, since the idyllic, removed atmosphere is not always repeated.