Tobacco & Misunderstood Religion

At the bottom of this post is an excellent documentary of the smoking epidemic in Indonesia.  The epidemic exists in many countries.  I lived in Asia for a decade where smoking is huge — it is where I started smoking (and where I stopped).  In fact, my favorite cigarettes were these delicious, deadly Kretek clove cigarette mentioned in the video.

Michael Fridman's atheist site

In the video, a Muslim activist uses his religion to fight the tobacco industry.  I found this video on the atheist site of  “A Nadder” where the blogger explores his cognitive dilemma: his distaste for tobacco and his distaste for religion.  For in Indonesia, his one enemy is fighting his other enemy.

I am a skeptical, empirical naturalist by nature.  Yet I have embraced religious practices over the years.  My site is all about that contradiction.  In fact, by some definitions, I am still religious.  But this word “religion” is slippery.

I am not an Atheist who thinks all aspects of religion are bad.  “Religion” is a very complex, highly-abstract, connotation-packed term which contains elements emphasized differently by every user of the term — thus, it is ripe for misuse and miscommunication.  Because of this, we atheists do ourselves a disfavor in speaking of “religion” in sweeping, general terms.  You would think skeptics would pride themselves in careful, analytic, considered analysis and would not sacrifice logic for emotion.  But I see this unfortunate self-righteous sacrifice on many atheist sites.

Questions to Readers:  Do some aspects of religion embrace valuable practices that secular societies often neglect?   Can “throwing out religion” result in “throwing out the baby with the bath water”?  Is there a potential valuable component to religions that facile hyper-rational (emotional) generalizations miss?

My comment on the Nadder’s site was essentially this:

Humans will use whatever is available to manipulate other people: politics, religion, family-ties, sex — the whole gamut.   But why haven’t the cigarette peddlers realized the power of religion to sell their product?   If we can answer that question, I think we will have a better understanding of the complex phenomena of “religion” and it will slow us down in speaking in broad-stroke terms about “religion” in general.

Question to Readers:  Why do you think cigarette peddlers don’t use religion to sell their product if religion is such a powerful authoritative deception tool that many atheists typify it?

To atheists, I am a nagging gadfly on this issue which I think it is very important.  However, I am not calling for embracing religion by any means.  But instead, I am asking that we not sacrifice reason in our zeal to fight the obvious and abhorrent negative uses of religion.  Instead we should try carefully to understand the human mind.  We should consider the importance of building a culture (external and internal) which nurtures that which is valuable and good. (These are intentionally vague words, I know.)

Here is the video:

PS:  For those who have scrolled this far,  I am sad that only one soul has kindly commented on my  Buddhist Hemorrhoids post (a true labor-of-love).  If you like those sort of  posts please go there and comment so as to encourage me!  Meanwhile, my theory for why the dearth of comments is:

  • Buddhist readers felt it was pejorative, disrespectful or baiting
  • Christians & Atheists don’t care about Buddhism
  • Few people care about Japanese and Chinese linguistics.
  • And almost everyone is grossed out about Hemorrhoids! 😉


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

24 responses to “Tobacco & Misunderstood Religion

  1. I quit six years ago. All that smoking in the video makes me want to smoke. 😉

    I do still have a cigar every now and then.

    Never tried the cloves.

  2. A quick google search did not make the clove cigarettes sound especially deadly (relative to regular cigarettes). Just curious, have never tried one either.

    Do some aspects of religion embrace valuable practices that secular societies often neglect? Can “throwing out religion” result in “throwing out the baby with the bath water”? Is there a potential valuable component to religions that facile hyper-rational (emotional) generalizations miss?

    I think the standard atheist answer is that while religion can help people embrace valuable practices, it is not necessary, and therefore it is not helpful because it will undoubtedly encourage harmful practices as well.

    As someone who struggles with a viceral negative response to religion, I find it difficult to embrace the helpful aspects of religion, prefering to throw the (biblical) babies out with the bathwater. But I try not to throw them out, but rather to reinterpret them so they make sense to me (your “generous translation” principal at work)

    I also recognize that a vast number of people are religious, and are going to remain religious, so as far as religion helps people embrace valuable practices, I would rather encourage those elements within their religious framework than encourage them to do what I have done in casting the whole assembly off. Very pragmatic of me, whether or not people see it as a appropriate approach overall.

  3. in seminary i studied a lot of Christian ethicists. i find myself more and more catholic. i’ve simply lived out their ethics, even while fighting it for most of my life. so i think there are really excellent ethics that have been misused or the reasons and point of having these ethics have been lost.

    religion has a lot to offer on ethics, we just may need to update the language. but that’s much hunch.

    as for your hunches:

    i’ve read the post, thought you did a great job, but have nothing to add. i do care about Buddhism and infact, preaching on Impermanence this coming sunday. but i’ve been silently stalking your site for months now, so it’s nothing new.

  4. Ian

    You know I agree with you. But I did ‘try on’ a different belief a few weeks ago. That went something like this:

    When a patient is diagnosed with terminal cancer (as a family member of ours has been), their perspective can change. Suddenly people have new importance. Every action they take is more meaningful. There is no time to be cautious or embarrassed or a shrinking violet. Ambitions that have been left to moulder for years get acted on, and often the person feels like they are the person they wanted to be, and wishes they had found themselves earlier in their life.

    If terminal cancer can transform a personality and make it bloom. Why are we working so hard to eradicate it?

  5. @ AtimetoRend : Very well said !

    Concerning clove cigarettes. You probably know this, but a good way to “google” on that sort of topic is select “Scholar” under the “more” menu on the google menu. That will limit your search very nicely. Further, that search engine has additional useful filters.

    But here, is one research articles on clove cigarettes for you:
    2003, Malson –> on harm

    But you are right, frank articles on clove being worse than others aren’t clear to me yet. And the guy in the video tells consumers that clove is antimicrobial and good for you. Heck, I saw an article that TB pt smoke again because they think it is healthy form them.

    But the probable danger to clove is that it makes the cigarette more tasty, more attractive, better smelling and thus people smoke more. But look dude, one time (or even 10 times) won’t kill you. Give them a try, they are addictive. 😈

  6. @ Ian :
    Warning Buddhist plug coming: Due to your insight with this family member (sorry to hear it), contemplating impermanence and actually imminent death and such is a contemplation practice in Buddhism for the exact reasons you stated. But it has the benefit with out the curtailed lifespan.

    @ Ian & Zero1Ghost
    I’d like to hear your theories on why Tobacco Companies in various countries don’t try to use religious manipulation to sell tobacco.

  7. “I’d like to hear your theories on why Tobacco Companies in various countries don’t try to use religious manipulation to sell tobacco.”

    they don’t have to. they already had the cultural capital in ways religion doesn’t. religion wouldn’t really add anything to their image, in fact it may take away from it depending on how it’s marketed. i wouldn’t see the Marlboro man in church cause he’s anti-establishment, a self-made man. shoe doesn’t fit. the brand doesn’t mix well with religion and there’s more than enough reason to keep them separate and even build the gulf between the two.

  8. @ Zero:
    You are getting close to my point. I didn’t state my theory here because I wanted to hear from others.
    I think the reason religion is not used to push smoking is because their is a moral element to most religiosity that makes the messages clash. I think this is the redemptive side of much religion.

    That tobacco companies don’t use religion illustrates for me the baby in the wash. Thus my message to atheists.

    See what I mean?

  9. i see it quite clearly. thanks for the message!

  10. Religion is about restraint in one way or another.

    Addictive activities are about indulging oneself.

    They are diametrically opposed.

  11. Oh….And I found your hemorrhoid post interesting but I am really a clone forom the Victorian area that finds such vulgarity distasteful! 😉

    Plus, I hear enough about bodily functions from my two boys. I’m way past my allotted ration bathroom humor and the words “fart” “poop” and “pee”.

    I can’t believe my delicate self even typed those words.

  12. @ Terri
    Interesting, this may be part of the puzzle.

  13. @ Terri
    Concerning hemorrhoids — you would then find my entire career vulgar. The vulgarity of the human body is a Buddhist meditation to help us see through our artificial categories. But I get your point. I think it was a turn off for others too. But heck, the linguistics should have made it worth it!! 🙂

  14. Do some aspects of religion embrace valuable practices that secular societies often neglect? Can “throwing out religion” result in “throwing out the baby with the bath water”? Is there a potential valuable component to religions that facile hyper-rational (emotional) generalizations miss?

    I think the word “religions” may be too general. It may be possible to draw a useful and helpful distinction between monotheistic and nonmonotheistic religions. The former tends to produce one sort of culture; the latter a different and more tolerant sort of culture.

    I don’t think of Buddhism (as I practice it) as quite a religion; it’s a closer relative to science. But a form of science with a healthy appreciation for the heart.

  15. Hi Sabio, thanks for your comment and taking up the discussion.

    I don’t think there is much potential for sweeping attacks against religion at least for this particular issue. To me the downside of quitting smoking because your imam said so are too obvious for there to be a clear baby in the bathwater, in this case I’d see it more of as a good effect achieved through some very ad hoc means.

    As for using religion to promote smoking, it’s problematic in the example of Islam since I don’t think there would be much support for smoking per se. However I could definitely see an ad that positively relates smoking with religious rituals or an ad depicting friends smoking with a verse from the Quran about mirth. I don’t think there’s anything intrinsic about most religions that would stop such imagery.

    Also I’m not sure this imagery is avoided by Indonesian tobacco companies — but if it were it might be because there is no existing theological pro-smoking sentiment so it might be easier to use other approaches to marketing cigarettes.

  16. @ Dan :
    Thanx for stopping in!

    It is ironic that you correct me for being “too general” with the word “religion”. Because I strive to avoid generalization. But you are right — and here is why: This post is mostly addressed to atheists who use the word in too general of a fashion so my questions are intentionally and ironically formed that way so as to help move away from the generalization.

    But to your points: I think that with a little inspection, you would find the division of monotheistic and non-monotheistic to be very artificial. Take for instance the commonly declared bias that Buddhists cultures are more tolerance. Remember, all the warring Iron Age cultures were polytheistic. Also, China and Japan, both being non-monotheistic and largely Buddhist, because powerful oppressive military powers. Burma, a Buddhist country is extremely oppressive. I won’t bring up Tibet because it is controversial, but even the Dalai Lama has criticized Tibetan’s previous theocracy. The list goes on.

    One could protest that this is not a “Buddhist” thing but happened by corrupt Buddhists or secularists. But the point is, there was no culture produced by the predominance of Buddhists that stopped the oppression which likewise occurred in monotheistic countries.

    Likewise, Vishnivites and Shin Buddhists, though both come out of non-monotheistic religions look more like monotheistic Christianity than other Buddhism. So generalizing about Buddhism, I’d warn, is also very problematic.

    But I strongly agree with your last point: I think Buddhism can be practiced without the religious components that one typical associates with the word. I think Buddhism can be practiced “scientifically”. But oddly enough, I think their are positive notions of the word “religion” which would still stay attached to that “scientific Buddhism”. My point: fighting over such abstractions rarely gets us anywhere.

  17. @ Michael :

    Thanks for dropping in — I enjoy your blog and thus linked it and your fun pic too.
    But now, allow me to disagree with you — or I think we disagree. 😉

    I don’t think Islam could be easily used to promote cigarettes for reasons stated in above comments:

    (1) Terri said (9:28 pm), “Religion is about restraint in one way or another. Addictive activities are about indulging oneself. They are diametrically opposed.”
    Now I don’t agree with the generalization but as a counter measure, I think it points to the fact that ‘religions’ generally are associated with a strong moral component that smoking flies in the face of.
    I think your imagining tobacco and the Quran link is highly improbable for this reason. And it is that reason I am pointing to as an antidote to purely negative thinking of religion which you seem to be doing when you imply there is no clear baby in the bathwater to follow religion at all.

    Am I understanding your correctly?

    (2) Here I said it another way when I commented to Zero (12:11 pm)
    “I think the reason religion is not used to push smoking is because their is a moral element to most religiosity that makes the messages clash. I think this is the redemptive side of much religion.”

    Thus, I wrote this post as an antidote to those who over generalize about religion. Do you feel we differ on this or are just misunderstanding each other?

  18. Yes, my hypotheticals were intended as a counterargument to your claim. But maybe we need to clarify: if you think religion can’t be used to promote smoking, what is it about smoking that you think stops this and what other activities/practices would you add to this list?

    But I guess the broader thing is that it would be strange to make more than we need to out of an empirical question — I still think if you expand the list of activities to more than 1 item we will all be able to find examples of religions being used to promote some item in the list.

  19. @ Michael:
    Exactly !
    Your last point illustrates the fuzzy definition of the highly abstract word “religion”. I tried to illustrate that fuzziness with a “syndrome definition” here.

    But your first point seems to concede that there may be some socially useful functions of religion other than just simple power manipulation and stupidity — as it is falsely characterized too often by some atheists. Not that those useful functions can’t be accomplished without religion, but perhaps given all of human cognitive defects, religion was one evolutionary heuristics to accomplish those functions.

  20. geoih

    “We should consider the importance of building a culture (external and internal) which nurtures that which is valuable and good.”

    Now all you have to do is get concensus on what is valuable and good. Good luck with that. We can start with tobacco.

    As for why tobacco sellers haven’t used religion to sell their product: Probably for the same reason most other industries don’t use religion to sell their products. It would be seen as shallow and self-serving if done from outside the religion.

    It would probably be different if done from inside a religion. I bet if the Pope came out with an edict in favor of tobacco, then you’d see some movement in the market (look at fish on Fridays, or condoms).

    I also think it has something to do with the relative recentness of tobacco coming to the old world. Think of the opportunities, if only Jesus had smoked.

  21. I like the way Byron Katie uses the word religion. Religion is any thought I am attached to. A thought becomes religious when I do not question it, when I build a whole world of us and them, right and wrong, good and bad based on the unquestioned thought.
    On this blog, I see your willingness to question your atheist ideas. However, I have met an atheist or two who were extremely religiously devoted to their views, moreso than most traditionally ‘religious’ people.
    The unquestioned mind is a crazy religion!
    Because there, there there is no doubt, no question, no desire to question…
    I just posted something about that today, with a video of Byron Katie.

  22. Sabio, your points are well taken. Buddhism as a religion is, well, a religion! Along the lines of your response to me, I have pointed out among my Buddhist friends that the attack on Pearl Harbor (which happened on Dec. 7 in the US) was done early on the morning of December 8 in Japan which is on the “other side” of the International Date Line. December 8 is celebrated as “Buddha’s Enlightenment Day.” Some celebration!

    To compassionately navigate the world is a lofty goal, one which we share. And I’m with alywaibei in thinking that Byron Katie may well be on to something in suggesting that religion is any thought we’re strongly attached to.

  23. I’m still not sure how smoking is different to other activities for the purpose of this example. However I think it highlights a useful function in the same way that someone forcing someone to stop smoking at gunpoint can be taken to show a useful function of guns.

    However, even accepting the social utility argument, to me it’s still clear case of power manipulation for religious leaders to influence social policy through sharia/halakhic rulings.

  24. @ Dan :
    I agree with the Byrone Katie suggestion that strong attachment to a thought can be a sign of unhealthiness.

    @ Michael :
    I agree that religion has been co-opted by manipulators. Heck, even the moral elements of religion are manipulation to a large extent. But I am pointing out that “doing well” (even if only obstensibly) is part of what comprises the normal notion of “religion”.

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