Movie Review: Jesus Camp

I missed seeing the documentary Jesus Camp when it first came out in theaters last September. However, I've finally had the chance to view it, and I think this review is better late than never. In any case, so much relevant to the film has happened since then - the 2006 elections, the downfall of Ted Haggard, and even the announcement that the film itself had been nominated for an Oscar - that this seems an opportune time to review it and see how things have changed.

Directed by filmmakers Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, Jesus Camp is a documentary about a Pentecostal Christian children's summer camp in North Dakota, called "Kids on Fire," run by a minister named Becky Fischer. The filmmakers follow three pre-teen children, Levi, Rachael and Tory, around the country as they attend this camp, sit in on one of Ted Haggard's sermons in his New Life megachurch in Colorado Springs, and travel to Washington, D.C. during the nomination process of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. The filmmakers themselves do not narrate these events or otherwise provide an editorial voice during the film, but a critical viewpoint is provided by clips from the radio show of Mike Papantonio, a Methodist and the host of Air America Radio's Ring of Fire.

For an atheist like myself, this was not an easy movie to watch, and I think even many Christians would find it disturbing. The children in this film, most of them around 10 or 11, are subjected to a degree of indoctrination that is sickening and cult-like in its intensity, one that is intended to scrub from their minds all traces of independent thought and brainwash them into compliance with an agenda that is extreme and radical even among Christian fundamentalists.

In one scene from the film, Fischer leads the children in "praying in tongues", the babbling of nonsense syllables that supposedly indicates the presence of the Holy Spirit. In another, she publicly chastises the congregation, accusing some people present of being "phonies" who falsely profess allegiance to Christianity, until many of the children are sobbing; she then demands that they come up to the front one by one to confess their sins in public. One boy gets on his knees in front of the entire several-hundred-person congregation to admit that he sometimes has trouble believing that God exists or that the stories in the Bible are true.

Extreme right-wing politics are also a major part of the indoctrination. Fischer and the other ministers often profess their devotion to George W. Bush, because of his supposed born-again Christian beliefs, and at one point bring in a cardboard cutout of the man and encouraging all the children to stretch out their hands toward it and pray for him. The children are also taught that abortion is evil, with tiny dolls that are supposed to be fetuses passed out among them to touch and adore. At another point the entire congregation, including the children, is led in a chant of "Righteous judges!", repeated until many of them are crying or shaking, and are then told that they have made a sacred covenant with God to pray every day that abortion be outlawed. A third scene shows some of the children at home, being taught by their parents to say an altered version of the Pledge of Allegiance, not to the American flag but to a "Christian flag" that consists of a blue cross on a field of white.

Even now, my words do not do justice to the insidious and vile coercion used against these poor children. The film shows clearly how all of this activity takes place in an atmosphere of extreme emotion and intense peer pressure, the same technique used by many cults to break down people's resistance and then rebuild them in a way congenial to the cult's beliefs. The children interviewed for the film appear to be willing subjects who have wholeheartedly internalized the precepts of fundamentalist Christianity, which is not surprising, considering every peer and authority figure in their lives acts likewise and puts them under pressure to behave this way. (Most of these students are homeschooled, of course; one section shows one of them watching a young-earth creationist video and being taught by his mother to say that evolution is "stupid").

Fischer and the other ministers are unapologetic about their desire to indoctrinate children. Fischer praises kids for being "usable" for their cause, and speaks almost with admiration of Muslim madrassas where students are taught to admire terrorists and suicide bombers, stating her wish to teach children a comparable level of commitment to Christianity. Another minister congratulates children who attend the camp, "Way to be obedient!", and says, with no apparent awareness of irony, that "the devil goes after the young, those who cannot fend for themselves". Their expressed goal is to raise a new generation of fundamentalist Christians that will outnumber other groups and win the culture war through population. Stories like this are the best possible evidence for Richard Dawkins' argument that it should be considered child abuse, in a moral if not a legal sense, to indoctrinate children in the religion of their parents and deny them the chance to make up their own minds.

Near the end, the film shows a sermon given by the now-disgraced Ted Haggard. Knowing what we now know, there is much to find amusing about this, such as Haggard's assertion that we "don't have to debate about what we should think about homosexual activity - it's written in the Bible!" In another part of his speech, Haggard looks straight into the camera and jokes, "I know what you did last night. If you send me a thousand dollars, I won't tell your wife." His congregation laughs at this, but in retrospect, it is difficult not to think that Haggard was really speaking to himself. I can only wonder at the chaos that must have been raging inside him as those very words were taped. (Some of the children from Fischer's camp are shown attending Haggard's sermon; I'd be very interested in knowing how his fall from grace has affected them.)

Haggard also claims, "If the evangelicals vote, they determine the election," echoing other claims made by the believers in the film that their prayers and votes can control the course of events. Those confidently made assertions are now looking very shaky, considering the Republicans' disastrous loss in the 2006 midterm election. Though they captured a solid majority of the evangelical vote, as they usually do, it utterly failed to bring them victory, even losing many districts that were thought to be conservative strongholds. (And as this site has documented, Protestants in general are losing electoral power to nonbelievers.) What is more, the Republican presidential nominee for 2008 will have to face an extremely difficult balancing act, trying to be extreme enough to appeal to believers like this while simultaneously trying to appeal to the rest of the country, which has rejected most of the fundamentalists' favored positions by large margins.

When this documentary was made, it probably would have been far more depressing for the hope of our society. Now that so much has changed, it is still saddening, but mostly because of these children's lives that are being taken away from them by a warped ideology that tries to turn all its adherents into mindless drones for the cause. Since this film came out, Fischer has closed the camp down, citing fears of a backlash, though she has stated that she intends to continue her child-indoctrination efforts in other ways. However, I would be interested in a followup that explores how the children and adults featured in this documentary have changed, if at all. Fischer's website says the following:

The time people need to be seriously discipled is while they are still children, not when they are teens. If we wait till they are teens, it's too late!

Statistics show that by the time a child is 7 to 9 years old his/her moral moorings are already cast in stone, and whatever he/she believes by the time he/she is 13 they will generally die believing unless something catastrophic happens in his/her life to turn them around. I clearly remember Catholics and Communists both saying years ago saying "Give us a child until they are seven years old and we will have them for life!" They know something Christians don't know.

This movie is my scream for equal time in Christianity for children!

Notwithstanding the irony of Fischer's openly admitting she wants to follow the child-indoctrination model practiced by other groups, I think this declaration is in error. People do not always follow the beliefs they were taught in their youth (and Fischer seems to admit this and contradict herself by saying, on the same page as the excerpt quoted above, that "our own children are leaving the Church in alarming numbers (70%) when they reach their teen and young adult years"). While the devotion of the children in the film seems extreme - preaching sermons before the entire congregation, handing out Jack Chick tracts to strangers on the street - I find that beliefs so intense often do not last. The more intense the indoctrination is, the stronger the backlash can often be. I'm sure that some of these children may retain these beliefs for life, but I suspect that others (perhaps including the one boy I mentioned earlier) may ultimately break away and possibly even become atheists. There is just too much in the world that contradicts the beliefs of fundamentalist Christianity once people who hold those beliefs venture outside the protective bubble of their early years.

February 1, 2007, 6:56 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink17 comments
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In the Image of God

I have written previously about many different religious beliefs that cause harm to human lives, but today I intend to target a new one. This is the belief that human beings have not come into existence as the result of natural processes - or at least, not solely as the result of natural processes - but rather, that we were created "in the image of God" and owe our existence to him.

On its surface, this seems like an unobjectionable and even noble teaching, one that has been used as justification to oppose violence and other outrages upon human dignity. But it has an insidious corollary, which is this: if we were created by God, so the religious say, then we do not own our own lives. We are not the masters of our own fate, the captains of our own destiny. Rather, this teaching makes us out to be slaves, possessions, with no rights except the "right" to obey the will of God - where the role of "God" is, as always, played by the beliefs of the society in which a person lives, the church authorities whom they obey, and the teachings they have been indoctrinated with.

This tyrannical belief manifests itself in a variety of ways among the monotheistic religions. One of its more prominent outgrowths is the Christian opposition to euthanasia, the desire to deny terminally ill people the ability to end their lives with dignity and without needless suffering. However, an even more widespread implication is the belief that human beings, and women in particular, should not exercise control over their own reproductive systems but should seek to have as many children as they possibly can.

Although this fertility-cult teaching has long been embraced by the Roman Catholic church - with the appalling result that millions of children are born each year into already desperately malnourished and overcrowded areas of the world - it is now making inroads into Protestantism as well, under the movement name "Quiverfull", a reference to Psalm 127. If anything, devotees of the Quiverfull movement are even more extreme than Catholics, eschewing not just standard methods of contraception but also the rhythm method.

Quiverfull families with a dozen children or more are not unknown. And as one might have expected, the movement also comes with a large dose of oppressive, anti-woman rhetoric about how it is a wife's job to be submissive, to obey her husband under all circumstances, and to turn her body over to him for his use and control. Mary Pride, one of the founders of the Quiverfull movement, wrote in one of its seminal books The Way Home: Beyond Feminism, Back to Reality: "My body is not my own." And it is safe to assume that many of her followers share this attitude. (The most pernicious power of religion is its ability to persuade people to acquiesce in their own oppression.)

Devotees of the Quiverfull movement are extremely conservative as a rule, and usually choose to homeschool their children. This is one facet of a larger aspect of the movement, which is its stated goal to "take back" the nation and the world for Christianity by outbreeding followers of other belief systems. As an article by Kathryn Joyce in The Nation says:

In his 2004 column for the Times, David Brooks concluded that mothers like Welch and Mays are too busy parenting to wage culture war. A home-schooling mother of nine on the 2,700-family-strong online forum Quiverfull Digest (www.quiverfull.com) responded in irritation to Brooks's misunderstanding of the movement's aims. Raising a large family, she replied, was itself her "battle station," as deliberately political an act as canvassing for conservative candidates, not to mention part of a long-term plan to win the culture war "demographically."

...if just 8 million American Christian couples began supplying more "arrows for the war" by having six children or more, they propose, the Christian-right ranks could rise to 550 million within a century ("assuming Christ does not return before then"). They like to ponder the spiritual victory that such numbers could bring: both houses of Congress and the majority of state governor's mansions filled by Christians; universities that embrace creationism; sinful cities reclaimed for the faithful; and the swift blows dealt to companies that offend Christian sensibilities.

Despite decades of evangelizing, Christian fundamentalists have failed to triumph in the war of ideas. Indeed, their numbers are shrinking, while nonbelievers are increasing. Quiverfull parents are a response to these trends; they see themselves as workers on a brainwashing assembly line, working to churn out more believers by raising huge families in an atmosphere of intense indoctrination and isolation from all outside viewpoints. It seems apparent that they value children not for their own sake, as loved members of a family, but as additional bodies that can be pressed into service to fight a culture war. In short, Quiverfull children are not considered people; as the movement's very name implies, they are considered to be weapons.

The Quiverfull movement also serves as another tragic example of what happens when non-evidence-supported ideas are held and defended in the name of faith. Six or seven children, let alone a dozen or more, would be a major strain on any family - not just in terms of the parents' ability to provide for their material needs, but in terms of the parents' ability to give each child the individual love and attention they need to develop into healthy, normal adults. Yet most Quiverfull families are not wealthy, and many are grindingly poor. (A former member of the movement describes in stark terms the poverty and deprivation often suffered by these families, as well as the abusive methods of discipline some of them employ, although I think she speaks too soon in letting them off on other counts.)

This highlights, unintentionally, why it is so important to give women control over their own fertility and the size of their family through education and contraception, and what the good results are that ensue from doing this. Quiverfull families, on the other hand, usually scorn these concerns out of the belief that God will provide for their needs as long as they have enough faith. But there is no deity magically dispensing food and possessions, like Santa Claus, to those who believe in him, and these people's adherence to this false and naive belief system causes needless suffering both for themselves and, more importantly, for their innocent children who did not make that choice. And this is true not only in terms of hunger and poverty. It is also true on an emotional level, because this theology encourages depression, bitterness, and low self-esteem - since if the family's needs are not always magically provided for, which is bound to be the case at times, this will lead the parents to blame themselves since they obviously "didn't have enough faith".

The Quiverfull movement and other religious fertility cults pose a vexing problem for an enlightened and rational society. It seems wrong for any family to burden everyone else by taking so much more than their share of the common resources, but we can hardly allow their children to live in substandard and needy conditions because of their parents' poor choices, and it would be a horrendous violation of individual liberty to make anyone submit against their will to means of controlling their fertility. For myself, I can't come up with a good solution to this dilemma. Thoughts?

January 15, 2007, 12:33 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink26 comments
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A Religious Fugitive is Captured

(Author's Note: We temporarily interrupt the "Roots of Morality" series to bring you this late-breaking news...)

A few weeks ago, I read Jon Krakauer's book Under the Banner of Heaven, a chilling account of the persistence of fundamentalist Mormon sects in the Utah desert that still practice polygamy, often forcing girls as young as 12 or 13 to marry older men who already have dozens of wives. (As Krakauer documents, this practice was instituted by Joseph Smith himself and is still enshrined in Mormon sacred texts, despite the LDS church's efforts to sweep it under the rug.)

A major locus of the book is the fundamentalist enclave called Colorado City, on the Utah-Arizona border, home to some 9,000 Mormon fundamentalists and a hub of polygamy. Colorado City is a virtual theocracy, and until recently was under the absolute rule of a ninety-two-year-old self-proclaimed prophet named Rulon T. Jeffs, or "Uncle Rulon" as the town's inhabitants referred to him. In an interview with an apostate named DeLoy Bateman, Krakauer shows how this religious tyrant kept his flock under control:

Members of the religion... are forbidden to watch television or read magazines or newspapers... Uncle Rulon's word carries the weight of law. The mayor and every other city employee answers to him, as do the entire police force and the superintendent of public schools. Even animals are subject to his whim. Two years ago a Rottweiler killed a child in town. An edict went out that dogs would no longer be allowed within the city limits. A posse of young men was dispatched to round up all the canines, after which the unsuspecting pets were taken into a dry wash and shot.

Uncle Rulon has married an estimated seventy-five women with whom he has fathered at least sixty-five children; several of his wives were given to him in marriage when they were fourteen or fifteen and he was in his eighties. His sermons frequently stress the need for total submission. "I want to tell you that the greatest freedom you can enjoy is in obedience," he has preached.

In addition, as the book explains, Jeffs and the Mormon fundamentalist authorities own all the land in Colorado City, including the land on which the inhabitants' homes are built. Disobedient church members can be punished by having their wives, children and homes taken away from them and reassigned to another man (echoing other cases where religious authorities have sought to create their own mini-theocracies).

Despite Jeffs' Taliban-like authoritarianism, his followers genuinely seemed devoted to him, and some literally believed that he would live forever, due to his status as a prophet. On September 8, 2002, Rulon Jeffs died of heart failure. (Colorado City's previous ruler, LeRoy Johnson, was also believed by the town's inhabitants to be blessed with eternal life, or at at least he was until his death in 1986 at age ninety-eight.) However, a new theocrat rose up to take the reins: the second son of Rulon Jeffs' fourth wife, one Warren Jeffs.

Jeffs had been running Colorado City in all but name for some time already, due to his father's advanced age and illness. But he never inspired the love or adoration his father did. Krakauer quotes one of the new prophet's own older brothers as saying, "Warren has no love for the people. His method for controlling them is to inspire fear and dread. My brother preaches that you must be perfect in your obedience... Warren's a fanatic. Everything is black and white to him."

And the book has this footnote:

During the spring and summer of 2003, Warren Jeffs came under increasing scrutiny from state authorities after evidence came to light that the FLDS prophet had committed felonies by fathering children with at least two of the underage girls he had taken as spiritual wives. In August 2003, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff announced to the media, "I don't mind telling Warren Jeffs that I'm coming after him."

In response to this announcement, Jeffs fled across the border to a polygamist Mormon community in Canada, although the book notes that he has been sighted returning to Colorado City on several occasions to take additional plural wives. (Jeffs had previously banned all marriages within the community for everyone but himself so long as this "persecution" lasted.)

Imagine, then, my surprise when I saw this headline on CNN Wednesday evening:

Nevada state troopers found one of the FBI's most wanted fugitives, along with wigs, cell phones, laptop computers and more than $54,000 in cash, on a highway north of Las Vegas, authorities said Monday.

Polygamist sect leader Warren Steed Jeffs, 50, was a passenger in a red 2007 Cadillac Escalade that was pulled over along Interstate 15 shortly after 9 p.m. (12 a.m. ET) Monday.

...Jeffs faces charges of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution in Utah and Arizona, sexual conduct with a minor, conspiracy to commit sexual conduct with a minor and rape as an accomplice, according to the FBI Web site.

He has been called a religious zealot and dangerous extremist by critics and former members of his church.

The question of polygamy raises some difficult moral issues. I am not opposed to the idea of two women and a man (or two men and a woman) living together if they are all consenting adults and freely choose such an arrangement. In any case, since the Colorado City polygamists and other fundamentalist Mormons almost never seek legal sanction for their plural marriages but are only married "in spirit" by fellow church members, it is difficult to see what laws could be passed to prevent them from doing this that would not also entail a draconian intrusion into the lives of all other private citizens.

Child sex abuse and rape, however, are two entirely different matters. Both of these practices can and should be curtailed by law, and in both of these cases a clear distinction can be drawn between illegal and legal conduct whose enforcement would not infringe on the rights of law-abiding people. And it seems all too clear that there are religious communities that are havens for this behavior on a massive scale. Krakauer cites sickening first-hand testimonies of women growing up in fundamentalist Mormon communities who suffered repeated rape, sexual abuse, and being "given" as polygamous wives to older men while they were far too young to possibly consent.

The pressing question is how to put a stop to the abuses being committed in these isolated, tightly-knit religious communities, which are invariably arrayed in cult-like opposition to the outside world. Jeffs' arrest may help, as the community may disintegrate without the presence of an absolute ruler to keep all its members in line. (Ironically, Jeffs' decision to flee may be the only reason he was captured; Krakauer points out that the authorities would probably have avoided coming after him if he had stayed in Colorado City, fearing another Waco-like bloodbath.) However, more likely a new tyrant will be raised up in his place and will continue to lord it over the lives of his enslaved followers. Only when society chooses to stop tolerating this behavior and takes strong steps to prevent religious cults from defying the laws enacted by democratic vote can these dens of evil be broken up for good.

September 2, 2006, 1:38 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink30 comments
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CAP Alert Reviews I

Ladies and gentlemen, dear readers and interested lurkers, I'd like to introduce you all to a group that holds a unique place in my memories: the ChildCare Action Project, or CAP for short.

I mentioned in a previous post, A Personal Journey to Atheism, that one of the last things I did before confirming myself as an atheist and humanist was to seek out an evangelical Christian group and invite them to present their best case to me. Well, now you know the other half of the story: CAP was that group. They are one of the principal reasons that I am an atheist today, and for that I thank them.

CAP's major mission is to review movies from a fundamentalist Christian perspective. I was aware of them before becoming an atheist, primarily because of several humor sites I used to visit that poked fun at them. I can safely say that that mockery was not undeserved. As anyone who visits CAP's site can see for themselves, their defining traits are extreme paranoia about anything and everything having to do with sex, constant demands for blind and absolute submission to authority, and highly selective use and application of the Bible that is, paradoxically, combined with an extremely rigid and dogmatic interpretation of scripture, almost to the point of self-parody. I can assure readers, however, that they are utterly serious.

I could spend most of my time mocking them myself, as it is so easy to do. Witness the following gems from some of their extensive list of reviews - each listed item is something about that movie which they found objectionable:

The Apostle: "talk of 'being human' to excuse sexual desires" (Do the CAP reviewers believe that this is inaccurate, or do they just resent it being pointed out? Do they teach their children that real Christians do not experience sexual desire?)

Inspector Gadget: "I'm gonna kick some b--t." (Yes, that is an actual quote from the site. You may compose your own joke about the Victorian sensibilities of people who think the word "butt" is a profanity.)

George of the Jungle: "animal urination"
The Incredibles: "marital discord"
Elektra: "question about intercourse"
(Although every single married couple in the history of humankind quarrels from time to time and every living thing that has ever existed on this planet excretes, evidently we must pretend that these things do not exist in order to raise good Christian children. And heaven forbid that people start asking questions about sex!)

Parent Trap: "hidden adolsecent [sic] nudity"
The Aviator: "mammary display, clothed"
(How dare those depraved filmmakers show people who were naked under their clothes!)

The Matrix: Revolutions: "extensive revelry" (Everyone knows that real Christians don't have fun.)

Office Space: "pornographic background music" (This guy must spend way too much time obsessing about sex if mere background music makes him uncomfortably hot under the collar.)

Pleasantville: "talk of skinny dipping as acceptable" (I hear real Christians don't shower naked either.)

Scooby-Doo: "punk dress"
Bowling for Columbine: "goth dress"
(Real Christians know that what a person chooses to wear is an infallible indicator of their inner character. That's why we have the old saying, "You can judge a book by its cover.")

Ice Age: "'An eye for an eye' as justification for revenge" (This is really too much. Have we now come to the point where Christians are criticizing movies for teaching morals that come from the Bible, or is CAP not aware that "an eye for an eye" is a biblical verse? [Exodus 21:24])

Cars: "male car exhibiting rear underside to female car" (There must be some severe repression going on in the mind of anyone who worries about this. What bad end, exactly, is the reviewer worried this will lead to? People becoming mechanics? The attitude expressed here bears more than a little resemblance to those prudish Victorians who allegedly made sure to decently dress up their tables' legs, lest people get the wrong idea.)

I will have more to say about CAP in future posts, but for now, allow me to focus on one especially disturbing aspect of their beliefs: their apparent advocacy of the idea that authority figures should always be obeyed, regardless of who they are or what they command. At first glance, CAP might object that this is an unfair depiction, pointing to passages such as the following, from their review of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:

"Humma Kavula (John Malkovich) is a half human, half robot dictator who rules with religion, portraying the people just like the adversaries want people of faith to be portrayed -- regimented, unthinking multitudes in mechanical servitude."

But while CAP's left hand makes claims such as this, their right hand says something completely different. In other reviews, they have deducted points from movies for things such as "portrayal of authority as stupid" (Final Destination), or "dissidence among troops" (Doom). The latter is particularly disturbing, given that I saw that movie and the incident which I believe the review refers to is one in which a commander orders his heavily armed soldiers to massacre a large group of civilians. Evidently, the CAP reviewer has no objection to that command, but rather, objects to the idea that the soldiers balk at following it. The other comment is similar: apparently any portrayal of any authority figure as ignorant or mistaken is unacceptable in his eyes. And yet he complains that atheists try to depict people of faith as regimented, mechanical automatons? Look to the beam in your own eye first, sir.

But those reviews do not even reach the height of hypocrisy. One candidate for that position is the review of the dark comedy Saved!, which contains the following line to shock the hearts of good Christians everywhere: "The ultimate rebel - Jesus". Clearly this is a vile smear, because as we all know, Jesus was a clean-cut conservative who wore a suit, kept his beard neatly trimmed, and was scrupulous in obeying the religious authorities of his time. Any depiction of him as in any way shocking, unconventional, or rebellious could only be inspired by hatred of God.

And then there is CAP's review of Meet the Fockers (the full name of which they refuse to print on their site). That movie contains the following heretical piece of dialogue: "Always question authority". Given that the CAP reviewer deducted points from the movie for this, one can only assume he believes that there are some authorities which should not be questioned, but should be obeyed absolutely, without dissent or independent thought. And this is the person who has the gall to complain about depictions of Christians as "unthinking multitudes in mechanical servitude". His own words show that this is exactly what he himself believes and advocates.

The intriguing question is which authorities CAP believes should be exempt from questioning. Presumably, they mean that category to include God; except, of course, that God is not manifest in this world, giving orders from a glowing white throne. Instead, one assumes, CAP intends that Christians should not question whom they believe to be God's surrogates in this world, such as the Bible. But again, there is the problem that there are many dueling interpretations of the Bible, and it is nonsensical to believe them to be saying that interpretations of the Bible which they disagree with should not be questioned. The logical conclusion is that CAP believes that their own interpretation of the Bible should be believed without questioning or argument.

This attitude parallels other expressions of the same idea in religious thinking, such as C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain, which views both this life and the afterlife as a rigid hierarchy of dominance and submission and praises obedience as "intrinsically good", regardless of its content. No matter what sophisticated language is used to dress it up, this is the morality of a child. By contrast, a freethinker whose mind is not blinded by dogma knows that every authority should be questioned. The ones worth following will be able to answer those questions.

June 23, 2006, 10:29 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink19 comments
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Higher Truth

While browsing Usenet some time ago, I came across this post on the newsgroup alt.religion.christian. It appears to be an excerpt from the book Drawing Near, a collection of 365 "daily readings for a deeper faith" by Christian pastor John MacArthur, whose ministry Grace to You claims a worldwide radio program, eleven million audiocassettes sold, and dozens of best-selling books written in its thirty-year history.

The excerpt is worth reading, if only to marvel at the arrogance it displays. It states that every born-again Christian, regardless of their level of education, has wisdom that "far surpasses" that of even the most educated atheist or other non-Christian. (Yes, that's right, readers - it doesn't matter if you have a Ph.D. in astronomy and astrophysics and taught at Harvard and Cornell, if you were one of the most influential founders of the most powerful, prosperous and democratic nation in the history of human civilization, or if you were a surgeon performing operations on every part of the body and saving lives for five decades - any high-school student with a King James Bible knows more than you do!) We are also treated to the tidbit that believers "understand the most sublime truths of all", one of which is that humanity's purpose for existence is to serve as a sort of canned applause, telling God endlessly how great he is for having created us.

And what about the people who disagree with you on these matters? Is it just a matter of differing opinions? Or are they on alternative roads to the truth? Of course not! People who do not accept the tenets of Christianity, this article informs us, do so because they are ignorant and evil. "Such wisdom and insight," we are told, "escapes unbelievers because they tend to view the things of God with disdain."

In all seriousness, this excerpt is worth reading for another, more important reason: it offers a revealing glimpse into the world of fundamentalist Christian thought, and the tactics that the viral meme-complex of theism uses to keep a hold on its adherents' minds. As "Thoughts in Captivity" argues, organized religion, especially in its more virulent strains, is in effect a system of mind control, designed to command the beliefs and behaviors of its adherents. MacArthur's sermon is an excellent example of one of the more pernicious tactics it uses to accomplish this. It encourages believers to think, not just that they have the truth, but that they have a "higher" truth which is inherently superior to anything any non-Christian possesses, and this in turn encourages believers to disregard any criticism of their beliefs from outside.

One of this meme's more common forms is the tendency of believers to tell outsiders criticizing their religion that they just "don't understand", that they haven't studied it enough and that if they had they would agree with the orthodox view. This argument recurs in every religion, from Muslims who claim that no one who does not speak Arabic has the right to comment on the Qur'an to evangelical Christians who perpetually claim that outsiders would be converted if only they had read one more apologist's book. Even if the nonbeliever has studied the believer's religion in depth, even if they are more knowledgeable about it than the believer themself, they are accused of not having done it with a sufficiently devotional attitude, of bringing a closed mind to their studies. The fact that the nonbeliever has not converted to that religion is taken as proof of their closed-mindedness. (The advantage of this argument is that it can be deployed without any factual support whatsoever. I cannot count how many times I have been pityingly informed by believers that I "just don't understand", despite the fact that they could not point to a single actual error in any of my arguments.)

Of course, this tolerance is invariably a one-way street. Believers almost never hold their criticisms of other religions, or of atheism, to a similarly stringent standard. I have likewise lost count of the times I have been preached to by believers who think they completely understand atheism despite never having read a single book or essay by an actual atheist. Often these are the same people who inform me that I am completely unqualified to criticize their religion because I do not understand it.

In reality, the "qualification" to criticize a believer's religion is a mirage, endlessly retreating into the distance. What it really means is that the believer feels that no one is qualified to criticize their beliefs, and we should point that out whenever this argument is brought up. (Of course, a double standard is invariably applied; no one needs this impossible level of expertise to be considered qualified to join a religion.)

Another, even more insidious belief is that all outsiders are deceived and blinded by Satan, and that their criticisms should therefore be ignored regardless of their content. Like the other argument, this one can be deployed regardless of the content of the nonbeliever's criticism. Like the other argument, it is similarly constructed to be impervious to the facts: the only people who are not blinded by Satan and who are worth listening to are fellow members of the speaker's religion.

What is the best way to overcome these arguments? On the level of purely rational argument, there is no way. But at another, more personal level, it can be done. Believers who see nonbelievers living happy, fulfilled and most of all outspoken lives, who are forced to realize that the behavior of outsiders is not what one would expect from lost souls blinded by Satan, may eventually be compelled by conscience to abandon these hopeless anti-intellectual defenses. This is part of why I encourage all atheists and nonbelievers to come out of the closet and to state their position openly. Prejudice thrives in the shadow of ignorance, but in the daylight, it tends to wither on the vine.

April 26, 2006, 1:12 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink3 comments
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