Sometime in the next four bil­lion years or so, our sun will go nova, a prefa­tory flare-​​up to its slow gut­ter­ing and even­tual cool­ing to a dark, dead state. The nova itself — not the kind of cat­a­strophic explo­sion you see out of much larger stars (Betelgeuse, for instance, is a prime can­di­date for this) — will prob­a­bly cause the sun’s out­er­most lay­ers to extend near or to our own planet’s orbit. When that hap­pens, of course, Earth will be charred and ren­dered utterly lifeless.*

Well, by then pre­sum­ably our dis­tant ances­tors will have left, tak­ing with them — one hopes — the best of our devel­op­men­tal lega­cies. They won’t resem­ble us at all; Homo sapi­ens will have been extinct by then for bil­lions of years. Assuming no cat­a­strophic self-​​immolation, we might have another fifty to hun­dred thou­sand years in us before our prog­eny have mutated to the point that they wouldn’t be our species any more, which would ren­der us extinct, though per­haps still sym­bol­i­cally con­nected in some emo­tion­ally sig­nif­i­cant fashion.

Of course, the uni­verse itself is even­tu­ally going to do one of two things: Collapse in on itself in a final, cat­a­strophic mega-​​black hole, thus destroy­ing itself and every­thing in it, includ­ing our dis­tant ances­tors; or con­tinue spread­ing across a wider space as the stars it con­tains, suck­ing up hydro­gen, even­tu­ally nova or explode and die out, and the whole cos­mos becomes a flat, dead, cold sheet of com­pletely life­less entropy.

With such prospects ahead of us, many seek the warmth and com­fort of reli­gion; and faith can even serve to balm us in our local, parochial crises — but even reli­gion doesn’t work any more, it seems. Too many reli­gious peo­ple in the US — specif­i­cally right-​​wing Christians — are mor­bidly obese.

Baptists have the high­est rates of obe­sity — 30 per­cent, accord­ing to a Purdue University study using infor­ma­tion from a national sur­vey that gath­ers data on lifestyle issues. That com­pares with 17 per­cent of Catholics and 1 per­cent or less for non-​​Christians — Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists.

Now I’m mar­gin­ally Buddhist myself, and might be able to offer some insight as to why that group doesn’t seem to have obe­sity issues in a lit­tle while, but before we get there we have the ques­tion of why it seems that the Baptists are the most affected. Apparently the strin­gent ver­sion of the reli­gion expects its mem­bers to avoid tobacco and alco­hol (which is remark­ably sim­i­lar to Mormon ideas), which — along with the stan­dard right-​​wing fanat­i­cal restric­tions on sex — leaves Baptists few options for enjoyment.

Or, as [author Kenneth Ferraro’s] arti­cle says: “Baptists may find food one of the few avail­able sources of earthly pleasure.”

Can’t drink, can’t smoke, can’t swive or mas­tur­bate.** Leaves damned lit­tle, doesn’t it? And the Christain fad diet plans are really hop­ping along, just as the “low carb” craze was a cou­ple years back. (Originally I had toyed with titling this post “What Would Jesus Eat?”, but it turns out there’s already a diet of that name. Seriously.) There are other, less scrupu­lous snake oil­ers out there as well:

Christian broad­caster Pat Robertson has devel­oped a $15 weight-​​loss shake that is mar­keted nation­ally through Vitamin Shoppe. More than 1.3 mil­lion peo­ple have ordered a free diet pro­gram he launched in 2004.

This is the same Pat Robertson who claims to be able to lift 2,000 pounds after drink­ing one of his holy shakes — so you just know it must be effec­tive, because, after all, Pat is entirely sane and doesn’t have any rea­son to exag­ger­ate, pre­var­i­cate or lie. As is obvous from the price of his shake: A pal­try fif­teen dol­lars per serving.

The ques­tion is whether the diets are work­ing. So far there doesn’t seem to be a lot of evi­dence that they are, despite the efforts of peo­ple such as pas­tor Steve Reynolds, who under­went a trans­for­ma­tive real­iza­tion him­self and began work­ing off his 100-​​plus extra pounds of weight, and who is try­ing to get his parish­ioners to do the same.

About 40 per­cent of you need to lose weight,” he told his con­gre­ga­tion at Capital Baptist Church. “When you love potluck more than God, it’s serious.”

And with that, the preacher, who has lost 70 pounds by rely­ing on God and low carbs, launched a mis­sion to lead his fol­low­ers into the bur­geon­ing world of reli­gious diet­ing. “Our body was given to us by God and for God,” he said. “He is the owner. We need to take care of what He’s given us.”

This is a good exam­ple of a prac­tice what you preach approach, and it’s gar­nered some favor­able responses.

Among the more than 200 who jammed the church’s gym for an intro­duc­tory lun­cheon after the wor­ship ser­vices ear­lier this month was Sylviana Nica, 28, a Falls Church office worker. It was her first visit to Capital Baptist, and she came after hear­ing radio ads for Bod4God. She has strug­gled for years to lose weight and live health­ier and, as a Christian, she said, the reli­gious slant of the pro­gram appealed to her.

I’ve been pray­ing for this,” she said.

(One won­ders why she couldn’t go to a local health club, but appar­ently that wasn’t mirac­u­lous enough to actu­ally moti­vate her.)

There are prob­lems in the US today, prob­lems that might be leav­ing a lot of peo­ple feel­ing trapped in despair. Jobs have left the econ­omy, there’s more worry than ever about each person’s finan­cial future, and there’s an idiot in the White House who seems obsessed with point­less wars that accom­plish noth­ing. Many months ago I posted the idea that Humvees exist as a sort of com­pen­sa­tion for that — and in many other cases, per­haps food and reli­gion can serve as balms for inter­nal anguish.

Some seem to want to turn one balm into the other:

It’s about turn­ing to God to fill up this yearn­ing instead of the refrig­er­a­tor,” said Gwen Shamblin, founder of Weigh Down Workshops, which enrolled sev­eral hun­dred thou­sand peo­ple nation­wide last year in a diet pro­gram that encour­ages par­tic­i­pants to trans­fer their focus from diets and calo­ries to Jesus Christ.

But is that really so dif­fer­ent from, say, attend­ing AA meet­ings, wean­ing one­self off booze, and slowly becom­ing a chain smoker instead? Aren’t we over­look­ing the actual cause of the cri­sis and instead seek­ing to address the symptoms?

I men­tioned above that I might have one insight into why Buddhists seem to have sig­nif­i­cantly lower rates of obe­sity than most other reli­gious groups in the US. If obe­sity is a response to a sense of empti­ness, stress or anx­i­ety, then lower instances in Buddhists might have to do with the prac­tice of med­i­tat­ing on imper­ma­nence, empti­ness and death — a way to encour­age the med­i­ta­tor to probe the mean­ing of exis­tence, the mean­ing of nonex­is­tence, and the inevitabil­ity of com­plete dissolution.

A key Buddhist teach­ing is that the self is ulti­mately nonex­is­tent; it is imper­ma­nent and tran­si­tory. Couple that with another teach­ing — that attach­ment is the cause of suf­fer­ing — and the pos­si­bil­ity arises that a med­i­ta­tor might be a lit­tle less afraid of change or of the idea of total dis­ap­pear­ance of self, and there­fore pos­si­bly a lit­tle more able to cope with exis­ten­tial angst in a health­ier way than suck­ing down a pint of New York Super Fudge Chunk.***

After a while one becomes used to hold­ing two com­pet­ing world­views: Everything we do is essen­tially non­per­ma­nent, com­ing from noth­ing and dis­solv­ing into noth­ing and there­fore, for all prac­ti­cal pur­poses, mean­ing­less on a cos­mic scale; yet at the same time every­thing we do has an effect in the ephemeral world on the ephemeral lives of the oth­ers around us — so why would we want to behave in a way that increases suf­fer­ing, our own or any­one else’s? Since life is imper­ma­nent any­way, why make it mis­er­able by behav­ing badly?

This idea seems to illu­mi­nate a point for me. Right-​​wing fanat­i­cal Christians are doing every­thing they can to con­cretize a lit­eral read­ing of the Bible. This is a dan­ger­ous prac­tice, because the book sim­ply does not describe real­ity; and because delib­er­ately immers­ing one­self in a delu­sional state does not equip one with the tools nec­es­sary to live in a cos­mopoli­tan, com­plex and largely sec­u­lar world.

Yet the response of fanat­ics is to deepen the ill­ness, to retreat fur­ther into fanati­cism and try to drag oth­ers along with them. Thus they have essen­tially brought about their own mis­ery by con­tin­u­ally return­ing to a dry well — and the pity of it all is that they can’t see the steril­ity of their own endeav­ors … even when that steril­ity is killing them.

For that rea­son, I fear the religion-​​based diets are not going to work. Just as with every other aspect of right-​​wing fanati­cism, the mir­a­cle will fail to man­i­fest, and the dis­il­lu­sion­ment and pain will only deepen. Unfortunately, there’s very lit­tle any­one can do to pre­vent that; it’s up to those who are afflicted by the toxic meme of fanati­cism to address their own delu­sions. Hopefully it will hap­pen before they eat them­selves to death.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and do some things that will ulti­mately prove to be totally mean­ing­less on a cos­mic scale. (Besides, it’s time for lunch.)

====

* The ancient Greeks believed Earth would die when Apollo’s char­iot — which was the sun — crashed from the sky and burned the sur­face of the planet to a cinder.

** Well, you can, but you end up feel­ing guilty. And what do peo­ple often do when they feel guilty?

*** Or it could all just be a load of pro­pa­gan­dis­tic horseshit.

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