The Evangelist's Funnel

Through some odd stroke of coincidence, when I was in San Francisco earlier this year, I encountered more than the usual amount of religious nuttiness. I've already written about the woman who gets divine communications in God's actual handwriting. There were also Scientologists handing out pamphlets on a street corner, advertising something called the "Purification Rundown":

One or two of these questions, like the one about drug flashbacks, would only apply to people with genuine psychological problems. But the rest of them are drawn so broadly, it's inconceivable that they wouldn't apply to any normal human being. If you've ever felt drowsy in the middle of the day or taken an afternoon nap, then you've "felt fatigued now and then for no apparent reason". If you've ever been bored at a class, a lecture, a job or a social event, you'd probably have to admit that you sometimes feel "wooden and lifeless". If you've ever been in a peevish mood, you may be "irritable without reason or cause". If you ever daydream or let your attention wander, you'll sometimes get a feeling of being "spaced out".

But even if you're some kind of emotionless android who never has any changing moods, the Scientologists still have a card to play: if you answered yes to 3 "or less" of these questions - which presumably includes answering zero - you still "could have" some level of unspecified "accumulated toxins". Which, of course, the Scientologists will be happy to help remove, along with the contents of your wallet.

This is a time-tested strategy of religious evangelists of all kinds: a seemingly open-ended script for conversation which is designed to ensure that you end up in the same place no matter where you begin. I call this tactic "the evangelist's funnel".

Evangelical Christianity has used this strategy to great effect by asking people if they've ever done anything wrong in their entire lives, and if they answer yes, are told that they're hellbound unless they convert. And even if you've never hurt anyone, lied or stolen, evangelicalism falls back on the old reliable standard of thoughtcrime. Have you ever been angry at a friend? Have you ever experienced even a fleeting moment of lust in your heart? Have you ever coveted something that wasn't yours? Then you deserve to burn in hell for all eternity, sinner! It's not clear how we're supposed to avoid doing these things, since they're entirely unconscious drives (it would be like getting blamed for yawning or blinking). Nor is it clear why God gave us those drives if he doesn't like them; nor why he cares what thoughts we have even if we never act on them. You're not supposed to ask those questions, you're just supposed to fall on your knees and praise Jesus.

The most effective response to the evangelist's funnel, rather than engaging with it directly, is to point out the implicit premises that it tries to conceal. Ask up front, "Is there any answer I could give that wouldn't result in you advising me to join your religion?" If they're honest, they'll have to say no, which gives you an opening to highlight the essential dishonesty of the whole exercise. They're not trying to engage you in a conversation, they're trying to maneuver you into a trap. Once that's established, you can ask what independent evidence exists for the effectiveness of their beliefs at curing the problem they claim to be able to solve.

June 20, 2011, 5:51 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink11 comments
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The Necessity of Hell

After my earlier post on this subject, Slacktivist has written several follow-up posts about the evangelical freak-out over the news that one of their own may not believe in Hell:

For Mohler, as for most of Team Hell, we can see that there are two distinct categories. On the one hand there is what is "clearly revealed in the Bible... teachings... doctrine." And on the other hand there's this evasive, fuzzy-wuzzy, extra-biblical, anti-biblical notion of "the character of God."

...this is not how Team Hell reads the Bible. They regard the idea of reading the entire Bible as "driving toward" any one point as a dangerous approach that prioritizes some passages over others. That opens the door to all sorts of "evasions" and "revisions." For them every word in the Bible is sacred. And thus every word in the Bible is equally sacred. To allow for some grand theme or interpretive scheme or some larger picture of the character of God would be to challenge that equal sacredness of every single word.

I won't repeat my previous post, but I want to point out that what neither Slacktivist nor his pro-eternal-torture adversaries see is that they're not using different interpretive schemes. They're both basing their beliefs on their respective interpretations of how the Bible describes God's character. The only difference is that one side emphasizes the wrathful and warlike verses while ignoring those that focus on love and forgiveness, while the other does the opposite. The Bible is such a vast book, and contains so many different and conflicting passages, that you can find support for essentially any viewpoint you care to take about the nature of God.

I want to talk, instead, about why this is so important for Team Hell - why they're so emphatic about the requirement that Christians believe in eternal, conscious torture without relief or hope for the majority of humankind. And I think there's an important hint in the story of Carlton Pearson's deconversion. When Pearson was struck by a crisis of conscience and ceased believing in damnation, the congregation of his megachurch dwindled from 5,000 to 200. As I wrote at the time:

Had he preached that some other church was not strict enough - that God was withholding salvation from some group formerly believed to be saved - I doubt anyone would have batted an eye. But to widen the circle of the saved was, for his brethren, an intolerable heresy. Theirs is a theology that elevates wrath over mercy, punishment over grace, and judgment over love. One of Pearson's associate pastors admits as much, candidly saying that teachings about eternal torment and the Rapture did far more to fill the pews than teaching about love and forgiveness ever will.

Leah of Unequally Yoked quipped that Mormonism, because of its belief in posthumous conversion, is "the only losing choice in Pascal's wager", and I think the pro-eternal-torture crowd sees itself facing a similar dilemma. Their strategy to fill the pews relies on terrifying people with lurid images of hellfire, offering them an easy way out, and then promising that by making the right choice, they'll become God's elect and enjoy his divine favor eternally. But universalism threatens that simple equation. If people don't have to go to church to be saved from Hell, then what do they need church for at all? Even worse, if those other people - the ones over there in that other tribe, the ones we don't like - are going to Heaven too, then how can we be sure we're better than them? Intolerable thought!

This is the old advertiser's tactic: invent a problem, convince people that they have it, then offer to sell them the cure, promising that it will make them cooler, sexier, better-smelling than the teeming masses. Whether it's tooth-whitening strips or eternal salvation, the selling points are the same. And just like the corporations that rake in the bucks from exploiting consumers' insecurities, the evangelical pitchmen have built an empire of wealth and political influence on belief in Hell. It serves the dual purpose of coercing people to stay in line through fear, then rewarding them for their obedience by flattering them that they're the savvy ones who know how to escape what the rest of the world has got coming.

A faith that made no demands for everyone to join, unlike the evangelical theology of exclusivity and judgment, might be superior in the moral sense. But in the memetic competition, it's probably doomed. It just wouldn't be able to outcompete religions which demand allegiance and obedience and threaten those who won't go along. Whatever else you can say about the evangelicals, they know their target market. I'd be glad to see Rob Bell and those of like mind make progress towards reforming Christianity, but ultimately, I don't think belief in Hell or any other religious derangement will ever be defeated from within. It will only be overcome when people become rational and skeptical enough to question any belief for which there's no good evidence.

March 28, 2011, 5:54 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink24 comments
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Yes, Virginia, The Bible Does Teach Hell

Slacktivist, my favorite progressive Christian blog, has been reporting on how the religious right has been in a tizzy over the news that prominent evangelical pastor Rob Bell may no longer believe in eternal damnation. (I know, I know - he doesn't believe that God will torture billions of people in a lake of fire for all eternity? Horrors!)

This is a view Slacktivist himself holds, and to defend Bell, he quotes three passages commonly used to support belief in Hell, Luke 16:19-31 (the parable of Lazarus and the rich man), Matthew 25:41-46 (the sheep and the goats) and Revelation 20:11-15 (the book of life and the lake of fire), in order to critique the standard interpretation:

...these passages' references to a "lake of fire" or "eternal fire" or torment in "Hades" cannot easily be read as teaching that this is the proper understanding of the cartography and logistics of the afterlife. That's not what these passages are about.

...The point of these passages, clearly, is ethical instruction and I don't think they can really be made to accommodate any other reading.

Now, I'm all for this position on ethical grounds, as I wrote in my post about Carlton Pearson. I applaud anyone who has the decency to reject the idea of Hell as a sadistic fantasy. Nevertheless, I'm afraid I have to disagree with Slacktivist on textual grounds. It isn't the case that this idea can't plausibly be found in the Bible.

I can cheerfully grant his point that the hellfire imagery in these passages is there as a rhetorical device to draw readers' attention to the ethical lesson taught in all three, which is about helping the poor and needy. I also agree that this fact is probably embarrassing and awkward for the right-wing believers who usually quote these passages, since those people's favorite pastimes are slashing the social safety net and cutting aid to the poor in the name of Jesus (not to mention flatly turning away people who need aid and compassion).

But here's the problem: Just because the threat of Hell is invoked to get people to follow a moral commandment, it doesn't follow that the moral commandment is the only meaningful part of the passage or that the threat is merely metaphorical. If a Soviet text said, "The Great Leader banished a dissident to the gulag in the icy wastes of Siberia, because that dissident disobeyed Marx's teaching about giving to each according to his need..." - you might say that the point of the passage is about following communist teachings, but that doesn't mean that the incidental details about Siberia are fictional. On the contrary, you could very plausibly argue that if there was no Siberia, the entire passage would be hollow and would lose its point.

For what it's worth, Slacktivist also overlooked another commonly cited passage:

"So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth."

—Matthew 13:49-50

This passage is harder for his argument to accommodate, since it isn't a detailed exhortation to ethical behavior, as with the other three passages, nor does it use hellfire as a framing device for a larger parable. It just states a plain, declarative fact: the wicked are going to be cast into a furnace of fire to suffer. Sounds rather, well, hellish.

And then there's this old mainstay, which is especially difficult for the universalist view. It clearly states that not only is there some kind of undesirable fate awaiting in the afterlife, but that most of humanity goes there:

"Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat. Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it."

—Matthew 7:13-14

Both these verses are spoken by Jesus, also, which causes problems for the universalist view that "we should look at the larger context of the character of God as revealed through Jesus Christ" (quoted from here).

For what it's worth, I agree with Slacktivist's contention that the doctrine of the Rapture is a modern invention, created by stringing together vague and unrelated verses from different parts of the Bible. The proof of this is that the Rapture is a very recent belief in Christianity, with few or no historical antecedents before the 1800s. But this isn't true of Hell, which does have an ancient vintage. Some of the oldest noncanonical Christian books, like the Apocalypse of Peter, take sadistic delight in describing the torments of the damned. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding, and in this case, the undeniable historical truth is that Christianity has always included belief in Hell. I wish this weren't true, and I wish there was decisive scriptural evidence against this wicked idea, but it just isn't so.

As much as I like Slacktivist's writings, he's fallen into a common trap for religious liberals: the dangerous belief that the way we should decide what to believe about any theological topic is by figuring out what the Bible says about it - and therefore, if we want to reject any religious doctrine, we need to find an interpretation of the Bible which supports this. He says that his view is based on the character of God as revealed through Jesus, rather than through a proof-texting approach which plucks out isolated verses to support a specific position; but ultimately, it's just a more roundabout way of achieving the same thing. However well-intentioned this is, it always results in an endless game of dueling interpretations, and since no one can prove the superiority of one interpretation over another, this means that the poisonous, misanthropic views of fundamentalists can never be decisively refuted.

I have a better idea: Who cares what the Bible says? Even if it taught the existence of Hell as clearly as daylight, it would still be a morally monstrous and revolting belief supported by no real evidence. Instead, why don't we appeal to people's inherent reason and sense of compassion to persuade them to reject it? I don't believe that this is a futile task - the flickers of conscience so often seen among theists prove it. What we need to do is to give them permission to doubt, permission to believe that the Bible is not an absolute authority and that its claims can and should be rejected when they clash with science, common sense, or human decency.

March 3, 2011, 6:42 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink33 comments
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The Religious Right Hates Women

Last month, I wrote about the awful callousness of Catholic hospitals when a woman arrives needing an emergency abortion. As long as there's a fetal heartbeat, the clergy-run ethics committees of these hospitals often deny doctors permission to operate, even if the woman is hemorrhaging and dying before their eyes. Some doctors end up struggling desperately to keep their patient alive until the fetus dies, so they can operate and save her life. Others send these women to the nearest secular hospital, even if it's far away, because a long, risky ambulance ride gives them a better chance of survival than they'd have at a Catholic hospital.

But, rereading that post, I realize it gave a false impression which I'd like to correct. I unfairly implied that Catholicism is the only Christian sect which views women's lives as worthless and disposable. That was wrong of me, and I thank Republican representative and evangelical Christian Joe Pitts for the reminder:

[C]urrently, all hospitals in America that receive Medicare or Medicaid funding are bound by a 1986 law known as EMTALA to provide emergency care to all comers, regardless of their ability to pay or other factors.

...Pitts' new bill would free hospitals from any abortion requirement under EMTALA, meaning that medical providers who aren't willing to terminate pregnancies wouldn't have to - nor would they have to facilitate a transfer.

HR 358, the bill proposed by Pitts, would make any hospital legally free to do what Catholic bishops want all hospitals to do - categorically refuse to perform abortion under any circumstances, even if there's no other way to save the woman's life. The bill even frees hospitals from the obligation to transfer a woman to a different hospital that will perform them (section 2.g.1.D). If this bill became law, if a woman dying from complications of pregnancy (such as ectopic pregnancy or placental abruption) came to a hospital, they could legally let her hemorrhage to death on the waiting room floor and face no consequences.

Even by the standards of the religious right, this bill is extraordinary in its open and unconcealed hatred for women. We should be used to their normal level of misogyny - like the Republican-controlled House attempting to shut down all private insurance coverage of abortion, or the release of yet more phony, deceptively-edited videos purporting to show Planned Parenthood clinics aiding sex traffickers (noteworthy because Planned Parenthood actually did contact the proper authorities after these visits, not that this stopped the professional liars behind the videos) - but this one stands out even among those. In the past, the religious right has rarely been willing to so explicitly state its belief that women should die, but for whatever reason, they feel less constrained now in voicing their real position.

We would never countenance any other religious group imposing its cruel will in this way. We would never tolerate a Jehovah's Witness hospital that refused to perform transfusions on anyone, even people who arrive at the hospital bleeding to death. But because misogyny is deeply embedded into the structure of nearly all religions, and that prejudice has seeped into our moral opinions, society is somehow more accepting of this when women are the targets.

Well, that prejudice has to be turned back, and this story is a good starting point. This needs to be absolutely clear in everyone's mind: The religious right hates women. When they claim to love women, when they claim to be moral or compassionate, think of this, and remember they firmly believe that women whose lives can be saved should be abandoned to die. They are not loving, they are not compassionate. They think of half their fellow human beings as disposable objects, and behind their smiles and flowery language, there's a heart beating with poison.

February 14, 2011, 6:54 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink133 comments
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Book Review: Trusting Doubt

(Author's Note: The following review was solicited and is written in accordance with this site's policy for such reviews.)

Summary: An outstanding analysis of the flaws of evangelical Christianity, written from an insider's perspective by a former believer. My only complaint is that I wish she'd provided more information about what the next step is!

Although there are lots of atheist books that present a compelling case for atheism or against religion, there are relatively few that I'd recommend giving to a staunch believer as a means of convincing them. It takes more than a strong command of the facts to achieve that difficult goal; it takes a special kind of deft touch, one that makes an airtight case with passion, but without rhetoric that will only cause them to dismiss the author as an angry atheist. Valerie Tarico's book Trusting Doubt, I'm pleased to say, is one of the few books I've found that meet that standard.

Tarico herself is an ex-evangelical, a graduate of the private Christian university Wheaton College. As she recounts in this interview on Debunking Christianity, she spent most of her life immersed in the culture of evangelical Christianity, fervently believing, following all the rules and rituals, preaching to nonbelievers. But she wrestled with persistent doubts throughout her teenage and college years, in addition to struggling with depression and an eating disorder that her faith couldn't heal, as she'd been taught it would be able to. It was around the time she got a graduate degree in counseling psychology that these doubts could no longer be quieted, and she finally walked away and found the peace and freedom of becoming an atheist. Trusting Doubt is her account of what drove her away from faith.

Throughout the book, Tarico shows an impressive command of her subject material, and covers so many areas it's almost impossible not to learn something. There's an account how the Bible came to be, both the Old and New Testaments: how stories like the flood or the exodus were drawn from Babylonian folk tales and Canaanite religious texts, and how rabbinical and church councils decided which books to put into the canon and which to leave out. She contrasts the critical-historical method of scholars with modern evangelical "Bibliolatry" (p.31), worshipping the Bible as a contextless monolith, rather than learning about the twists and turns of the human process by which it came into being.

Following this, Tarico presents a list of biblical stories that contradict science, history, or each other, as well as a list of biblical broken promises and false prophecies. She shows how the Bible encourages prejudice, promoting the racist "chosen people" mythology or commanding the unjust treatment of women. Interspersed with these, she gives some telling quotes from the Christian songs, preachers, and apologists she grew up learning from on how to deal with these difficulties, such as this advice from the apologist Gleason Archer: "Be fully persuaded that an adequate explanation exists, even if you have not yet found it" (p.44).

There are also philosophical sections, critically analyzing the problem of evil and the idea of redemption by blood sacrifice. She discusses whether it's fair to make salvation dependent on a person's time and place of birth, and how religion is unnecessary for morality and how humans have a basic set of moral principles built in. She discusses the bloodshed throughout history in God's name, and the political oppression that's still going on, with a telling observation about the evangelical persecution complex: "When we see ourselves as victims, we cannot see ourselves as victimizers" (p.190). But one of the standout chapters was a superb analysis of religion from the memetic perspective, discussing the characteristics that make a meme successful regardless of its truth value - and then showing that evangelical Christianity embodies all of them!

If I have one complaint about this book, it's that it ends too abruptly. Tarico presents such a sympathetic and articulate case against evangelicalism, I wish she'd spent more time talking about the alternatives, so that people who read her book and come away convinced will have some idea of what the next step is. She clearly holds to a humanist perspective now, and the book would have benefited greatly from a chapter or two summarizing the principles of this view and comparing it with the one she once held. But it's that insider perspective, the sense of having been there and done that, that makes this book so potent and so difficult to dismiss.

February 11, 2011, 9:58 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink9 comments
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The Case for a Creator: Spiritual Wisdom

The Case for a Creator, Closing Thoughts

After spending over a year on this project, we've come to the end of The Case for a Creator. Before bringing this series to a close, I have some closing thoughts on the overall message and tactics of the book.

First: Although Lee Strobel tries to pass Case off as a dispassionate examination of scientific findings that just happen to support the existence of an intelligent designer, the obvious truth is that it's a Christian apologetics book dressed in a thin gown of pseudoscience. No better evidence of this could be given than how he treats his interviewees differently based on their religious beliefs. Everyone he interviews in the book, save for one person, is a fundamentalist Christian of some kind, and he gives each of these people ample opportunity to preach and to expound on their religious beliefs without challenge or objection. But when he speaks to his sole non-Christian interview subject, he suddenly changes his tune and declares he's only interested in hearing about science, not religion. See for yourself:

J.P. Moreland:

"[Scientists] will come to believe in the reality of the soul and the immaterial nature of consciousness. And this could open them up personally [my emphasis] to something even more important - to a much larger Mind and a much bigger Consciousness, who in the beginning was the Logos, and who made us in his image." [p.271]

Michael Behe:

"Based on the empirical evidence - which is continuing to mount - I'd agree with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger that 'the great projects of the living creation are not the products of chance and error... [They] point to a creating Reason and show us a creating Intelligence, and they do so more luminously and radiantly than ever before.'" [p.216]

Jay Wesley Richards:

"Christians have always believed that God testifies to his existence through the book of nature and the book of Scripture. In the nineteenth century, science effectively closed the book of nature. But now, new scientific discoveries are reopening it." [p.189]

Robin Collins:

"Romans 1:20 tells us that God's eternal power and divine nature can be seen and understood through things that are made, and that this is the reason humanity is without excuse. I see physics as uncovering the evidence of God's fingerprints at a deeper and more subtle level than the ancients could have dreamed of." [p.149]

William Lane Craig:

"That afternoon Jan and I prepared a little handwritten version of the Four Spiritual Laws, which spell out how a person can become a follower of Jesus. When we sat down with her at the meal that night, we opened the booklet and read the first sentence... We described how she could pray to ask God to forgive her wrongdoing and to receive Jesus as her forgiver and leader." [p.122]

Stephen Meyer:

"I see this not only in cosmology and physics and biology, but also in the historical revelation of the Bible, principally in the revelation of Jesus Christ. He is so compelling!... I remember thinking at one point that if the Jesus of the Bible weren't real, I would need to worship the person who created the character." [p.90-91]

And the only non-Christian interviewed in the entire book, Jonathan Wells:

I hadn't come to Seattle, however, to seek spiritual wisdom from Wells. [p.34]

Strobel's single-minded focus on Christianity is even more apparent in this excerpt from chapter 7:

Astounded by the Earth's fine-tuned physical, chemical, and biological interrelationships, some writers have gone so far as to liken our biosphere to a "superorganism" that is quite literally alive. In fact, James Lovelock's pantheistic Gaia Hypothesis even seeks to deify our planet. However, Gonzalez and Richards said it's unnecessary to go that far.
    "Despite these admittedly incredible interrelationships, there's nothing that requires anyone to see the Earth itself as being an organism, especially a god or goddess," Richards said. [p.166]

This is not scientific evidence being examined to reach a conclusion. Rather, this is a conclusion being chosen in advance and scientific arguments being selected based on whether they support it. What test could you possibly run to decide whether the Earth itself is a deity or whether it was the handiwork of an external creator?

This happens yet again later on in the book. As I mentioned in a previous post, J.P. Moreland raises the possibility that, if human minds emerge from matter, a divine, godlike mind could also emerge from matter - only to have Strobel swiftly point out, "That wouldn't be the God of Christianity" [p.265], which Moreland concedes. Again, this is not just "the case for a creator", in the sense of a generic argument for the world having been created by some kind of intelligent being. Strobel has a very specific creator in mind, and is only interested in investigating science that he feels supports his belief.

Other posts in this series:

June 26, 2010, 3:39 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink22 comments
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How Much Good Do Religious Charities Really Do?

I just finished reading Half the Sky, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's book on what we can do to improve the status of women worldwide. One of the book's major arguments is that, despite their opposition to abortion and contraception, religious groups often do more good than secular liberals give them credit for:

Religious conservatives... have also saved lives in vast numbers by underwriting and operating clinics in some of the neediest parts of Africa and Asia. When you travel in the poorest countries in Africa... the people you almost inevitably encounter are the missionary doctors and church-sponsored aid workers. [p.142]

Kristof and WuDunn write that both religious and secular groups do important work, and that liberals, moderates and conservatives from across the political spectrum should be able to cooperate to accomplish more. I agree! And so does Saad Mohammed Ali, a U.S. resident and former Iraqi refugee who's fluent in English and Arabic. He applied for a caseworker position at World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, for a job that involved helping Iraqi refugees resettle in America. On the face of it, he seemed ideally suited. And World Relief would have thought so too - except, it turns out, for one small, insignificant detail (HT: The Wall of Separation):

...a few days after he applied for the position last December, [Ali] got an unexpected call from the same manager at World Relief: She was sorry, she told him, but the agency couldn't offer him the job because he is not Christian.

Saad Mohammed Ali, you see, is a Muslim. And no matter how well qualified a Muslim might be to help the people World Relief wants to help, World Relief doesn't hire Muslims. It only hires evangelical Christians.

The opponents of atheism often accuse us of believing that no religion has ever done any good for anyone - a position that's obviously absurd and is held by no atheist that I know of. (Even Christopher Hitchens, atheist firebrand extraordinaire, says only that there's no good which a religious person could do but an atheist couldn't do.) The argument that atheists actually make is twofold. First, we assert that churches and religious groups' charitable work comes from the universal human sense of compassion, not from any specifically religious teaching. (This is most clearly shown by the fact that every religion, regardless of its beliefs, does work like this. Even Hamas builds schools, hospitals and orphanages.) Second, we assert that in spite of this, the religious beliefs of those groups often hamper their efforts by causing them to accomplish less good than they otherwise could have - even worsening the very problems they're trying to solve.

The clearest example is Roman Catholicism: the church does social work that helps the poor and AIDS victims in Africa and Asia, but by their hard-line opposition to condoms, they're making the problem worse by ensuring that there will be more poor people and more AIDS sufferers. A similar case is that of abstinence-only sex education. I don't doubt that the Christian evangelicals who support these programs genuinely want to reduce teen pregnancy and STDs. The problem is that their approach has been shown to be not nearly as effective as comprehensive programs that teach about contraception.

So too with World Relief. The problem isn't that they do no good at all, but that they artificially and arbitrarily limit the good they do by turning away perfectly qualified candidates just because they don't hold the right beliefs. And because atheism, as a movement, is relatively new and unorganized, we don't yet have the infrastructure to offer an alternative path to people who are rejected by religious charities that refuse to hire nonbelievers.

The major churches have been been running social programs for decades, have local branches all over the world, and have support from governments and wealthy, well-connected donors. They have a head start on us. We're working to organize and to catch up, but this takes time - and since they won't work with us or hire us in the meantime, it's more difficult to get our own efforts off the ground. This makes any straightforward comparison, of the "atheists don't do as much charitable work as religious people" sort, misguided and ignorant. (Another thought: How many current employees of World Relief are not evangelicals, but are afraid to disclose their beliefs lest they lose their jobs?)

One more point to highlight: according to AU, World Relief gets up to seventy percent of its funding from the U.S. government. That's your tax dollars and mine, American readers, going to underwrite jobs that we can never be hired for because we don't believe the right dogmas. This glaring constitutional violation would be excellent grounds for a lawsuit, if the right-leaning Supreme Court hadn't slammed the door in our faces by ruling that, due to legal technicalities about who exactly is spending the money, freethinkers have no power to compel the government to respect the First Amendment. We're at a double disadvantage: the government can take our money, use it to fund prejudiced, proselytizing religious charities without our consent, and then to cap it off, arrogant religious apologists demand to know why we aren't accomplishing as much good as those charities!

March 31, 2010, 4:43 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink19 comments
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An Atheist at Liberty University, Part IV

Our next stop was the Liberty campus bookstore. It was run by Barnes & Noble, and it looked pretty much like any other campus bookstore. I was surprised by the range of books available there, some of which I would have expected to be verboten on campus - from Neil Gaiman's American Gods to Jeff Sharlet's The Family, as well as books on global warming and dream interpretation. That said, there were also four or five whole racks of shelves, a good half of the store, devoted to Christian material - Bibles, apologetics manuals, theology texts, proselytizing handbooks, and one shelf given over to books written by Liberty faculty, including the current president, Jerry Falwell's son Jonathan.

This is a good place to comment on Liberty University's code of conduct, the "Liberty Way", which all students living on campus must obey (students who are under 21 and not married are required to live on campus). Among other things, it requires student groups to get prior approval from the administration for all on-campus speakers, demonstrations, and petitions, with the clear implication that permission will be denied if the activity would "compromise the principles and policies of Liberty University". (Remember what Johnnie Moore said about "disputable matters"? Not too many of those in sight around here, it seems.)



Even more surprisingly, the code of conduct bans Liberty students from seeing any R-rated movies - even while off-campus. (I asked; there was a special exemption for The Passion of the Christ.) Also banned are any video games, posters or music whose content is incompatible with a "healthy Christian atmosphere" or not "in harmony with God's word". This is why it surprised me to find such books in the bookstore - although, like most totalitarian states, I'm certain that Liberty has many unwritten rules in addition to the written ones. It may well be that students are expected not to read or possess unorthodox books, even if the rules don't say so explicitly.

Outside the bookstore, we came across this interesting little pavilion. I'm still not certain why Jerry Falwell chose the Liberty Bell as the symbol of his university, or why he named it "Liberty" in the first place. The Christian belief that Jesus provides "liberty" from sin may be part of it - but if that's the reason, why use a secular symbol like the Liberty Bell, rather than a cross or something else explicitly religious?

This could, yet again, be an example of how the evangelical mindset so often values image over substance. Doubtless, it serves rhetorical ends to proclaim their love of liberty, even while the rules they impose on their students and faculty regarding permitted speech, correct belief and so on are the antithesis of this.

Last but not least, there was our visit to the on-campus memorial to Jerry Falwell. It was on a hilltop, set aside from the other campus buildings, behind the house that Falwell lived in while he was alive and that's now used as an administrative center. There was a stone cross rising out of a reflecting pool, with an eternal flame on top, and a fenced-off plot of land watched over by a small bronze plaque. The snow was well-trampled, but in the chilly peace of that Sunday morning, my friends and I were the only ones there. On the far side of the memorial, someone with a less-than-reverent cast of mind had built a fort in the snow.





I shed no tears over Falwell's death; he was a spiteful, small-minded hatemonger, and proud of it. And to judge from all the accounts I've read, Liberty reflected that attitude while he was in charge of it. For instance, The Preacher's Son tells of several students being instantly expelled if they were even suspected of being gay; some of them were kicked out of their homes because of it, and at least one committed suicide.

Yet it does seem that Liberty has mellowed at least somewhat since Falwell's passing. The Preacher's Son also said that when the author attended Liberty, in the early 1990s, students were forbidden to see any movie or to listen to any contemporary music, even Christian pop; that girls were required to wear dresses or skirts; and that the administration put wheel locks on undergraduates' cars to stop them from leaving campus without permission. None of those things still seem to be true today.

Make no mistake, Liberty hasn't gone very far from its roots. It's still a deeply conservative Christian fundamentalist college, still teaches its students young-earth creationism and the Rapture, still makes attendance at religious services mandatory, still engages in the policing of viewpoints and the monitoring of thoughts, and still views voting Republican as synonymous with Christianity. (As I was writing this, I heard that Americans United has asked the IRS to investigate Liberty's tax-exempt status in light of the administration using the school newspaper, the Liberty Champion, to endorse political candidates.) But despite its origins, Liberty hasn't been able to completely resist the tides of modernity, it seems.

But the problem is that even what's moderate by evangelical standards is not moderate by the standards of wider society. From biology classes that teach creationism to law classes that teach Christian dominionism, Liberty is systematically deceiving its students about the facts of the world. And the old, ugly paranoia and hatemongering isn't far beneath the surface either. And while, by the strict letter of the law, they have every legal right to lie and mislead, we likewise have every right to call this behavior what it is and denounce it. It seems a feeble weapon, but in the long run, no belief system is entirely immune to questioning.

March 4, 2010, 6:42 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink29 comments
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An Atheist at Liberty University, Part III

When the church service let out, my friends and I toured several other buildings on campus. We stopped by the dorms, which are strictly gender-segregated:

I wonder what mindset lies behind this. Is it because the trustees of Liberty believe it's indecent for men and women to mingle in public? Then why aren't the classes and the church services also sex-separated? And why don't they also enforce the biblical decree that women not wear jewelry or braid their hair (1 Timothy 2:9)? That's as clear a command as you could ask for, but the administration of Liberty seems to be comfortable allowing students to flout it.

As with many aspects of evangelicalism, I think this rule is more concerned with avoiding the appearance of impropriety than actual impropriety. I mentioned earlier that Liberty's official policy is that students aren't allowed to spend a night off campus without prior permission, and even then, they can only stay at the home of a married Christian couple. This, like the segregated dorms, is presumably intended to discourage students from having sex. But it's not much of an obstacle: after all, there's nothing to stop two students from checking into a motel just for the day (or availing themselves of a secluded parking spot and the back seat of a car...). And sure enough, one of the first rumors we heard on campus was of a female Liberty student who had gotten pregnant and was being pressured to drop out of school.

The next building we visited was one of Liberty's academic halls. This was the first place where the true nature of this university made itself unmistakably clear: the walls were lined with displays advocating young-earth creationism and making snide comments about "evolutionists". I was surprised that they were daring enough to include Archaeopteryx - although, as you'll note, the model plays up the resemblance to a pigeon, and the card doesn't include any information about what this creature was or what evolutionists think about it.

But even that wasn't the height of crazy. At the far end of the hall was a "Center for Judaic Studies", with a display case filled with replicas of artifacts from Roman-era Palestine. A plaque next to the door announced that one of the offices within belonged to Dr. Thomas Ice, "Pre-trib Research Director". I took a pamphlet from a box next to the door, which is reproduced in part below.

The sheer, undiluted lunacy of this newsletter goes on and on, blithely presenting ludicrous assertions about how the future will unfold as if they were undisputed facts. One can clearly see just how little effort Tim LaHaye put into fictionalizing these beliefs for the Left Behind series. Note this passage from one of the inner pages, which the author somehow managed to write without irony:

A highlight was the bestowment of the Walvoord award upon Tim LaHaye, John Whitcomb, and Chuck Smith... It was a moving experience to realize that those three men were all over 80 and have served the Lord their entire adult lives. Each man is still excitingly looking for the Lord's return at any moment.

And Thomas Ice, despite the cheerful, froggy grin in his headshot, is an utterly demented kook, to judge by writings of his like this post:

Brannon Howse reveals the largely unknown story of how the Obamas are taking national their radical, socialist, and anti-Christian worldview training that was birthed through their organization "Public Allies". The training will include "social justice" training which is code word for Communism, socialism and Marxism.

It's not surprising that a person of this mentality would believe in the Rapture; this belief fits right into the paranoid mindset that's constantly jumping at shadows and that sees evil conspiracies lurking around every corner. But it is amazing that such a person could ever be considered qualified to serve as a professor (at the "Pre-trib Research Center", no less, as if there were were something to "research" about all this, rather than Christian believers telling each other the same fairy tales generation after generation).

At the time I saw all this, I laughed. Can you imagine anyone still believing this nonsense? was my initial reaction. But the more I reflect on it, the more sobering an experience it is. The fact of the matter is that there are people who do believe this nonsense, and are doing their best to broadcast it to the world - and, in large part, they've succeeded.

The church service was one thing; no one who attends that should have any illusions about what they're going to hear or where that information is coming from. But what we have here is ignorance systematically misrepresented as knowledge, virulent religious delusion concealed behind a cargo-cult facade of science. This, perhaps, goes back to what I said before about evangelicals valuing the appearance of the thing more than the thing itself. It's a strategy they've used very successfully here, presenting beliefs that are utterly insane in the manner and the style of academia.

The students who pass through these halls, most of whom have probably never been exposed to a contrary perspective in their lives, likely have no idea how contentious any of this material is. They'll listen, they'll lap it up, and they'll believe it - because that's what they've been taught to do. And when people who genuinely believe this go to the voting booth, when they influence the decisions that affect our society and the lives of everyone in it, this isn't comical; it's incredibly dangerous. When American foreign policy is based on fever-dream interpretations of the Bible; when research funds for science are allocated based on the myths and superstitions of the Bronze Age; when critical thinking is nonexistent and blind faith rules the day; when extremist religion is merged with politics; and when reason is drowned in paranoia and fearmongering, then our society is in grave danger. Liberty's malignant fundamentalism, flaunted to the world without a hint of embarrassment, is a lesson for anyone who still thinks that religion is essentially benign.

Coming up: The campus bookstore, plus a visit to Jerry Falwell's memorial.

February 24, 2010, 6:52 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink35 comments
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An Atheist at Liberty University, Part II

(See Part I here.)

When the band finished their set, they departed and the pastor took the stage. He was relatively young, probably not much older than most members of the audience, and dressed in a plain shirt and jeans. His name, displayed on the giant screens overhead, was Johnnie Moore - a self-conscious use of the diminutive that was probably intended to emphasize the similarity between himself and the churchgoers.

I had come to Liberty expecting a fire-and-brimstone sermon, unapologetic quotations from the more hateful parts of the Bible, pulpit-pounding denunciations of Democrats, feminists and gay rights advocates. That wasn't what we got; if that ever was the atmosphere on campus, it's mellowed a bit since the Falwell days. Instead, like the music, his sermon seemed self-consciously bland, intended to be inspirational rather than wrathful. But there were a few points of interest which I'll talk about here.

The major theme of the sermon came from Philippians 2:14, which Moore translated as "Do everything without grumbling or complaining", and compared it with several other New Testament verses that teach similar lessons. He repeatedly described this as an absolute command - no complaining, ever, about anything, under any circumstances! Even if your life is hard or your job is terrible, he said, it's the duty of Christians to turn the other cheek and to always be so happy and contented that the rest of the world will wonder what they've got that makes them feel so good.

As part of this, he urged his audience to consider how good they have it in America. He pointed out that Christian converts in developing countries regularly suffer much greater poverty, deprivation, and persecution than American believers (such as one Indian convert whom he says was beaten and forced to drink cow urine by unfriendly villagers). And while this is indisputably true, he didn't point out the obvious implication: that American evangelicals are being deceptive when they depict themselves as a besieged, persecuted minority, as they routinely do. Nor did he mention that millions of people worldwide, not just Christians, are often subjected to unjust and cruel treatment from their culture or their government. It would have been nice to have some acknowledgment of that, especially in a sermon whose theme was that we should consider ourselves fortunate, but there wasn't any. Instead, in the moral universe of his sermon, Christians are apparently the only ones whom we should feel sympathy for.

I also want to draw attention to a dangerous implication of this teaching. I certainly wouldn't object if evangelicals ceased their perpetual whining about persecution, but there are real injustices that call for a response. Very often, it's been the complainers and the grumblers who succeeded in abolishing these evils. If we all heeded the advice that no one should complain about anything, ever, there would be no women's suffrage, no civil rights movement, no labor unions, no gay rights movement, no environmental movement, none of the social reform groups that work to improve conditions for the average person. The end result of following this teaching would be meekness, passivity, and docile compliance in the face of authority, even when it abuses its power - and perhaps, for good reason, this is exactly the attitude that the religious right seeks to instill in its followers.

Moore also cited Romans 14:1 to call for unity among evangelicals on "disputable matters", saying that senseless argument and contention over unimportant points of doctrine divides the church where there should be unity. But the question he never addressed, of course, is who decides what's a disputable matter? After all, it was Liberty University that only last year tried to ban the College Democrats from campus, claiming that the political positions of the Democratic party are incompatible with Christianity, and still refuses to hire any professor who does not swear allegiance to young-earth creationism. Clearly there are very few things, if any, that the religious right considers to be disputable. (The sole example that Moore cited was the biblical controversy over whether it's OK for Christians to eat meat that's been sacrificed to idols, hardly a live issue today.) It would have been helpful for him to list some modern issues where Liberty considers there to be room for dispute, just to get a sense of their position on this.

To finish up, Moore spoke of evangelistic efforts abroad. He exulted over how Christianity is exploding in South America and Africa, rising from just a few million believers several decades ago to tens of millions today. As my fiancee astutely observed, he obviously doesn't count Roman Catholics as Christians. As for myself, I was thinking of the savage anti-gay madness unleashed in Uganda by its booming evangelical population, or the witch frenzies in Nigeria, or the harm done by Pentecostalism in the Republic of the Congo. Such things, of course, were entirely omitted by Moore in his sermon. It was no surprise at all that he presented the rise of African evangelicalism as an entirely one-sided picture, portraying Christian missionary efforts as wholly noble and good and the converts solely as the victims of unjust persecution and never its initiators.

Coming up: Part III of my tour of Liberty University. We visit an academic hall to see what's being taught to Liberty students, check out the campus bookstore to see what the administration wants us to read, and make a pilgrimage to the university memorial to Jerry Falwell!

February 20, 2010, 4:24 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink48 comments
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