July 20, 2007

Coffin Joe: Poster Child for the Religious Right

For those not familiar with 1960's Brazilian horror cinema, let me introduce a plucky fellow named Zé do Caixão or, in American English, Coffin Joe. You may be asking at this point, "What the heck does a perennial Brazilian boogeyman have to do with the religious right in the USA?" Hang on, I'm getting to that.

Coffin Joe is the villain in three heavy-handed, moralistic, low-budget Brazilian horror flicks. I've seen two of them so far: À Meia-Noite Levarei Sua Alma and its sequel, Esta Noite Encarnarei no Teu Cadáver (in English, At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul and Tonight I'll Incarnate in Your Corpse). The story of Coffin Joe is that he's a funeral director who doesn't believe in Christianity (or any other religion, but the films have a distinctly Catholic flavor). He's thus necessarily amoral and evil. Joe, in fact, wants only one thing: to insure his own immortality by producing a son. In between disproving the existence of God by torturing and killing innocent villagers, Joe is looking for a woman to bear his child, but not just any woman will do! You see, Coffin Joe sees himself as Nietzche's übermensch, a "superior man" free of all superstition whose will alone guides his destiny and the destiny of all those who cross his path. His concubine must be a woman cut from the same cloth, and she must ultimately understand that Joe is superior to her as much as he is to all others, so potential womb-donors get bonus points for being willing to die to prove their worthiness. In the meanwhile, Joe contents himself with shaking his fist at the sky and demanding that Jehovah prove empirical evidence of his existence, often by saving a believer whose head he's about to crush with a big rock or bury alive or some such thing. Whenever Joe kills somebody, it seems, he comes out with a line reminiscent of Pharaoh in the Old Testament — "Where's your God now?"

The thing about Coffin Joe is that, to his own mind, he's doing good. His plan is to disprove the existence of God and so free mankind from being prisoners in Plato's cave. Joe doesn't believe in Satan anymore than he believes in Jesus, of course... and in the moralistic world of the films, he doesn't have to. Simply not believing in God is enough to make him ultimately evil, and so Joe himself looks like the devil. In Tonight I'll Incarnate..., Joe even gets dragged down to Hell and finds that Beelzebub looks exactly like him!

At the end of the two movies I've so far seen, Joe suffers a terrible fate. His end in the second film is particularly noteworthy as a triumph of blind faith over Joe's intellectual challenge for evidence of God's existence. He dies drowning in a swamp surrounded by the skeletons of his victims which, somehow, fills the bill for empirical data, and ultimately, as he sinks below the murky water, he is forced to admit that Jehovah is real. His final words are a plea to a priest to be given a crucifix so that he might save his soul. The priest refuses the request, and Joe is sent off to eternal damnation because, while Jesus may forgive his sins, the clergy needn't facilitate this.

I can only assume that the current crop of American religious true believers hasn't picked up on Zé do Caixão as an atheist icon because they're not aware of these extra-cultural films in the first place. The manner in which Coffin Joe is portrayed is identical to the boogeyman image of secularists that the leaders of American Christian extremism promote and which the majority of their followers are eager to accept and disseminate. Its put about by these people all the time that without faith in Jehovah and/or Jesus, one is bound to be selfish, amoral, evil, etc. The idea is that morality must come from fear of punishment, and without the threat of divine judgment hanging over one's head there's nothing to stop one from being a murderous child molester who copulates with barnyard animals and sets fire to orphanages at every opportunity. That one might thereafter dress up like the Puritan devil, the "man in black" of the witches' Sabbath, would follow. Listening and reading such arguments, someone who had no knowledge would easily believe that anyone who didn't believe in some interventionist, retributive spirit in the sky would sport claws, cape and pointy beard... just like Coffin Joe!

The religious right types already have some boogeymen, of course. They'll make up various stories that equate non-believers with Joseph Stalin or assert that Richard Dawkins is a gay puppy-buggerer or some such nonsense. Still, these are pretty pale in comparison to a classical monster image, and Coffin Joe would certainly be a scarier image with which to frighten one's children into religious conformity than some egghead slaving away in a laboratory or writing best selling books. After all, no one has yet come forward with evidence that these real people do terrible things like Coffin Joe. Richard Dawkins hasn't gouged anyone's eyes out as far as anyone knows. Christopher Hitchens hasn't raped any nuns. PZ Myers hasn't bred a race of mutant super-octopi with which to threaten the planet into submission. Coffin Joe, by not being real, is capable of anything, and the films clearly show just how horrible a fictional non-theist really is!

To give our religious brethren (heh) a start on this, I've whipped up a quick image to pass around. Feel free to steal it and share. After all, you'll never get rid of we non-Christians until you abstract what we're supposed to be so far away from what we really are that your iconic image of us bears no resemblance to any persons, living or dead. Enjoy.

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