God’s Catch-22by Don Lacey on Feb. 24, 2013, under Art & Culture, Atheism, Biblical Inerrancy, Christianity, Critical Thinking, Ethics, Faith, Freethought, God & Bible, History, Logic, Reason, Religion, Sanity, Skepticism
Spoiler Alert! The entry discusses in detail some important story elements of Joseph Heller’s acclaimed novel Catch-22. Those who wish to read the book for themselves should tread no further!
Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel Catch-22 details the trials and tribulations of Captain John Yossarian, a U.S. Army bombardier stationed in Italy towards the end of World War Two. The somewhat satirical book is widely regarded as being simultaneously funny and disturbing. It documents Yossarian’s numerous attempts to prolong his life by evading his duty to go on additional bombing missions. He comes to regard the war as essentially already won and resents his commanding officer’s practice of putting the lives of the 256th squadron in danger solely to advance reputation and ambition. Heller himself was bombardier stationed in Italy during World War II who flew 60 missions. He stated that the odds for his survival were not in his favor. Much of the book was drawn from his own experiences, though he says he never had a bad officer and much of the book’s cynicism came from the Korean War and the Red Scare rather than World War II.
Catch-22 is the obscure military rule that obstructs Yossarian from getting out of flying the increasingly growing number of required missions. Catch-22 is now widely used to describe a no win situation. It stipulates that, “a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that are real and immediate is the process of a rational mind” and those who possess a rational mind are not crazy and must fly their missions. Only the insane were excused from service and since asking to be relieved was a sign of sanity, this made it impossible to be relieved from duty; ” If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.”
Of course, no such rule officially ever existed, but because Yossarian’s commanding officer acted as though such a rule did exist, it became very real in practice. Colonel Cathcart, Yossarian’s commanding officer, throughout the book continues raising the number of missions each individual is expected to fly before they can go home. He led his men to believe that each increase would be the last but it was always followed by another. Yossarian believed the colonel’s dishonesty and willingness to put lives at unnecessary risk, not to mention the residents of the cities being bombed, was driven by personal ambitions and had little to do with advancing the war effort. Indeed, Yossarian tells another member of his squadron:
“The enemy is anybody who’s going to get you killed, no matter which side he’s on, and that includes Colonel Cathcart. And don’t you forget that, because the longer you remember it, the longer you might live.”
Eventually, Yossarian publicly refuses to fly more missions and captures the attention of Cathcart himself. Cathcart vehemently hates Yossarian and would very much like to have Yossarian court marshaled but realizes that Yossarian would get exactly what he wants–to be relieved of flying missions. Eventually Cathcart and his sidekick, Colonel Korn, decide to make Yossarian an offer. He can get out of flying more missions on one condition. Colonel Korn’s one condition is, “Like us”. Korn further elaborates the terms of the deal:
“Like us. Join us. Be our pal. Say nice things about us here and back in the States. Become one of the boys. Now that isn’t asking too much is it?”
All Yossarian has to do to get out of his missions is publicly speak in favor of Cathcart and Korn. Korn points out that after Yossarian does this it will be much easier for them to coerce the rest of Yossarian’s friends into flying more missions and states that they may even use him as an example. Everything about the idea repulses Yossarian but he considers doing it anyway. In exchange for this agreement, Yossarian is promised not only freedom from his military duties but a comfortable life as “one of the boys” in Cathcart’s well connected circle of military cronies.
There is a similar Catch-22 found in the Christian faith. Cathcart and Korn’s offer to free Yossarian from clear and present danger in exchange for compulsory praise is very much like what the Christians think their God offers us non-believers. We are happy that there is no evidence that the God of the Bible exists. God is depicted in both Testaments of the Bible as a petty, murderous, sexist, capricious, bigoted, genocidal monster. My lack of belief means that he is also not able to put me in the Catch-22 where I am forced to like (no, love) him or be subjected forever to eternal torture. Any being that would arrange for us to be subjected to complete and utter torment forever unless we submit to ourselves to his complete authority and talk ourselves into liking it, is undeserving of admiration or respect. Furthermore, such an offer would be a far worse Catch-22 than anything described in Heller’s book.