An Atheist at Liberty University

If you noticed that Daylight Atheism was quieter than usual this past weekend, you were right - I was out of town and had limited internet access. But there was a good reason for my absence: I was on a secret mission to penetrate into the very heart of the Bible Belt. Namely, I was storming the gates of Liberty University, the evangelical Christian college founded by Jerry Falwell, infamous for banning the College Democrats from campus and for instantly expelling any student found to be gay. Would they recognize me on sight? Would some supernatural sense of discernment tell them that an atheist was among them? And what would they do if they did find out?

The idea for this trip developed several weeks ago, when one of my friends, a frequent traveler, mentioned having read The Unlikely Disciple, a book by a liberal Brown student who transferred to Liberty for a semester and wrote about his experiences there. I had likewise just finished The Preacher's Son, a similar memoir about a survivor of an extreme fundamentalist family who accepted that he was gay while attending Liberty. A third friend of ours mentioned that she knew someone who attended the school and would be willing to show us around, and over a conversation, a plan was hatched. We set off on a road trip to Lynchburg, Virginia, with a few other stops along the way - one of which was Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home, which I may write about later - and at the end of our journey, we saw the sign that let us know we had arrived:

Lynchburg is a semi-suburban town in rural Virginia, sprawled around a tangle of highways and strip malls. Like many communities, I guessed, it owes most of its growth to the university, which was founded in 1971 by Falwell as Liberty Baptist College. The campus certainly dominates the town: it's by far the largest institution there, its buildings and their prominently placed logos visible from far off. And just in case you missed the point, a giant "LU" is landscaped onto the side of a nearby mountain.

For all of that, getting onto campus was easier than I had hoped. There was no Soviet-style security, no checkpoints or guards at the gates controlling who entered or left campus, as I had been more than half-expecting. (I later learned that this is enforced in a different way: resident assistants perform nightly checks to ensure that every student is in their room by curfew, and undergrads must get written permission to stay off-campus overnight.) It would have looked just like any other college campus if not for the first building we passed, the first one that gave me a strange, world-turned-upside-down feeling of disorientation I'd experience many more times on this trip: an arena that was boldly lettered "LaHaye Ice Center".

Our first priority on the trip was to attend a Sunday-morning church service, so we headed for the Vines Center, a domed structure that doubles as the stadium for sporting events and assemblies. When we walked in and found seats, I was taken aback: what stood at the center of the arena was not so much an altar as a stage, complete with swirling spotlights and a fog machine. It could have been the setting for any concert or rock show, if not for the signs scattered about (and for the sharp-eyed, notice the "Falwell" jersey hanging above the stage on the left):

We were early, and I was expecting a flood of people to arrive before services started, but the flood never materialized. I estimated that the stadium could hold around ten thousand people, but throughout the service, most of the seats were empty; I doubt the number in attendance ever got much above a thousand. Attendance at these services isn't mandatory, although I'm told it used to be, and we later found out that many Liberty students attend Thomas Road, the nearby Baptist megachurch also founded by Falwell, or one of the other local churches in the area. (Liberty students are still required to attend convocation, a three-times-weekly mini-church service that includes prayer, announcements and worship songs.)

The stage setup was there for a reason, as we soon found out. The band arrived and took their places on stage, and the service began with a half hour of Christian rock music, during most of which the crowd was asked to stand. I had read in The Preacher's Son that Liberty banned all rock music, even Christian rock, at the time the author attended, so it seems they've relaxed their rules somewhat since then. In any case, I doubt they ever had reason to worry: most Christian music is carefully devised to contain nothing that could possibly offend even the most uptight evangelical, and this was no exception. The music was technically accomplished, insofar as I'm any judge - it was a seven-piece band, with four different vocalists - but the lyrics were insipid and repetitive, each song consisting of the same chorus sung over and over again. It was easy to endure, although after a half hour, I thought I could feel my brain beginning to turn to mush.

But for all its calculated blandness, there were some disturbing undercurrents in the music's message. One song praised Jesus as follows: "I know you're my healer; you cure all my disease". Needless to say, any Liberty student with diabetes or appendicitis would soon find out just how lethally untrue that claim is, if they took it literally and tried putting it to the test. Another one referred to Jesus as "the Lord of this city", which was the kind of unsubtle theocratic message I had been expecting from the beginning.

The music was probably intended to work the crowd into a heighted emotional state, the standard tactic of mass manipulation, but if that was the effect they were seeking, they didn't get it. There was no speaking in tongues, no students collapsing in their seats or hollering amens and hallelujahs. The most visible effect I noticed was a scattering of people raising their arms and swaying sedately in time to the music. That said, the whole spectacle was very well-produced and well-televised. Four enormous screens hanging around the interior of the stadium showed a close-up view of what was happening on stage, and there were cameras recording the action from every angle.

I was unmoved by the music, but there was just one part of the performance that I found genuinely affecting. In between two songs, one of the vocalists read a section from the Bible, from Hosea chapter 6. It was a good choice: there's still some wonderful poetry in that old book, and this is one of the better examples:

Come, let us return to the Lord.
He has torn us to pieces
but he will heal us;
he has injured us
but he will bind up our wounds.

After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will restore us,
that we may live in his presence.

Let us acknowledge the Lord;
let us press on to acknowledge him.
As surely as the sun rises,
he will appear;
he will come to us like the winter rains,
like the spring rains that water the earth.

That said, the band obviously skipped over some of the darker and bloodier parts of that very same book, like this one:

The people of Samaria must bear their guilt,
because they have rebelled against their God.
They will fall by the sword;
their little ones will be dashed to the ground,
their pregnant women ripped open.

The schizophrenic contrast between these passages just goes to show what a deeply conflicting book the Bible is: it blends beautiful, pastoral imagery with savage threats of hate and bloodshed, all supposedly sanctioned by God. Evangelicals arrive at the belief that the Bible is divinely inspired only by ignoring or downplaying the nastier parts, whereas atheists see this book for what it is: a mirror of the humans who wrote it, magnifying both their best and their worst traits and attributing both to a vindictive and omnipotent god.

Coming up: Part II of our heroes' adventures at Liberty University, as the campus pastor takes the stage. Will he deliver a sermon to stir even the hardened heart of an atheist?

February 18, 2010, 6:48 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink36 comments
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Bloody-Handed Evangelicals

In the U.S., the cause of gay and lesbian rights has made major advances in the last few decades. Anti-discrimination laws are in wide effect, including a recently passed federal hate-crime law; marriage equality is already an established reality in several states; and despite setbacks, the now overwhelming tolerance and acceptance of gays and lesbians among younger generations heralds further progress in the future.

But in spite of these hopeful signs, the hatemongers and bigots of the religious right aren't giving up. As their cause slowly, but inexorably dries up at home, they're spreading their poisonous seed to foreign countries where it takes root in more welcoming soil.

Such is the state of affairs in the country of Uganda, where American evangelicals have long enjoyed a disproportionate degree of influence over the government. Homosexuality was already illegal in Uganda and has been for a long time, but Ugandan religious conservatives have learned from their American counterparts that even an oppressed and politically powerless group can easily be depicted as a menacing enemy in propaganda campaigns intended to stir up fear and hate among their followers. Just such a campaign has led to a proposed "Anti-Homosexuality Bill", which threatens to open the floodgates for the state-sanctioned mass murder of gay and lesbian people.

As previously discussed on Daylight Atheism, this bill would imprison homosexuals for life, and in some cases, would establish a crime of "aggravated homosexuality", which is punishable by death. But what I haven't discussed as much is the shockingly large role that American evangelicals played, both in the propaganda campaign that led up to it, as well as in the actual drafting of the bill itself. An article from the New York Times from earlier this month has the details, including the names of several key figures:

Scott Lively, a missionary who has written several books against homosexuality, including "7 Steps to Recruit-Proof Your Child"; Caleb Lee Brundidge, a self-described former gay man who leads "healing seminars"; and Don Schmierer, a board member of Exodus International, whose mission is "mobilizing the body of Christ to minister grace and truth to a world impacted by homosexuality"...

As the article explains, these missionaries visited Uganda in March 2009, giving a series of talks about how "the gay movement is an evil institution" which seeks to prey on boys, eliminate marriage and replace it with "a culture of sexual promiscuity". And just a month later, a Ugandan politician introduced the bill, which threatens to punish gays and lesbians with death.

Naturally, these American evangelicals claim they never wanted this outcome and profess shock that anyone could have misconstrued them in this way. But before Western media picked up on it, they were far less reticent:

But the Ugandan organizers of the conference admit helping draft the bill, and Mr. Lively has acknowledged meeting with Ugandan lawmakers to discuss it. He even wrote on his blog in March that someone had likened their campaign to "a nuclear bomb against the gay agenda in Uganda."

Whether Lively and the others knew specifically about the death penalty provision is uncertain - but to claim that they were entirely ignorant of what the government was planning is a claim that strains credulity.

In the face of Western threats to withdraw millions of foreign aid, the Ugandan government has backed down slightly - offering to change the death penalty provision to life imprisonment, as if that was an improvement - but whether the bill will pass, and what its final form will be, are still very much open questions. A hint of the attitude that still prevails comes from the Ugandan minister of ethics and integrity, who recently said, "Homosexuals can forget about human rights."

If this bill passes, the evangelicals who played a role in its creation will have bloody hands. All their pious pleas of naivete and innocence cannot change what their actions have wrought. They chose to travel to an extremely anti-gay country and try to whip the populace up into a frenzy of hatred and fear. And they profess shock at the outcome, but they shouldn't be surprised: all that's happened is that the Ugandan government has taken them at their word and proposed a policy that's the logical conclusion of their starting premises.

How else did they expect the government to react to claims, like these ones made by Lively, that the gay movement is raping and preying on children, that they're recruiting and bribing young boys to engage in sexual relationships with older men, that they're importing pornography "to weaken the moral fiber of the people", that they want to abolish marriage and replace it with a culture that embraces "sexual anarchy"? They've systematically portrayed gays and lesbians as evil deviants defying the law and engaging in a malevolent conspiracy to destroy Ugandan society. Did they really think the Ugandan government would do nothing more than build some Christian therapy centers?

To be absolutely fair, I don't doubt that Lively and the others are sincere when they claim they weren't seeking the execution of homosexuals. It's just that their brand of shrill, hysterical rhetoric is what they're accustomed to using; in America, it often gets them their way. But in America, this intemperate language is counterbalanced by a strong feminist movement and an effective system of constitutional rights. In Uganda, neither of those things exist; and again, the Ugandan government didn't treat their speeches as rally-the-troops political posturing, as American politicians and media usually do. Instead, they treated them as literal truth and acted accordingly. This potential theocratic horror is the result.

But this outcome was completely predictable, which is why the American evangelicals will have bloody hands if this bill does pass. If they haven't acted with malice aforethought, they've shown reckless indifference at the very least. Like the right-wing pundits whose deranged rhetoric pushes some of their more unstable followers over the edge, they will bear moral responsibility for whatever may result. (A little more credit, but only a very little, goes to Rick Warren, who after weeks of silence and an onslaught of bad press was finally shamed into offering a grudging condemnation of the bill.)

So, the next time the gay-bashing evangelicals claim to know what's best - the next time they claim to have moral authority over the rest of us - remember this moment. Remember their bloody hands. Remember their guilt and their responsibility. They'd clearly love for this whole sordid story to be forgotten. That's an opportunity we should be certain to deny them.

January 27, 2010, 6:44 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink39 comments
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William Dembski on Faith Healers

Most of you have probably heard the name of William Dembski, one of the prominent advocates of intelligent-design creationism. Like all ID advocates, Dembski claims vehemently that his work is scientific and not in any way motivated by his religious beliefs, which is why he's currently a professor of philosophy at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

But never mind that; today, somewhat surprisingly, I come to praise Dembski rather than bury him. That's because I've come across this very interesting essay of his about his family's experience visiting a faith healer.

You may not have known that Dembski has a severely autistic son - as he describes it, "largely nonverbal, still not fully toilet trained, serious developmental delays" - who was 7 years old at the time he wrote this essay. This, of course, is not a fate I would wish on anyone, regardless of their political or religious views. And while most cases of autism can be treated to an extent with intensive therapy, the paucity of good options and the daily struggles would be enough to drive any parent to despair and frustration. Thus, it's probably not surprising that Dembski felt he had little to lose when his fellow evangelical Christians recommended he attend an "impartation service" held in July 2008 by the faith healer Todd Bentley.

As Dembski tells it, the hyping and manipulation started early. Though the service began at 7 PM (in a basketball arena north of Dallas), the organizers urged them to arrive by 3 PM to be sure of getting a seat, citing expected overflow crowds:

At 6:30, after sitting for two hours, the arena was about three-quarters full. One of the organizers then announced that traffic was backed up for miles around Denton and that several thousand were trying to get into the meeting, most of whom would have to be turned away. This was sheer hype. A significant block of seats (at least 20 percent) were cordoned off and never used throughout the whole night. We could have arrived anytime and still gotten seats.

The service began at 7 with two hours (!) of "music ministry" (terrible, repetitive music, according to Dembski). Bentley himself finally took the stage at 9 PM, and spent most of the time talking about the astonishing miracles he claims to have performed. Dembski shows a welcome measure of skepticism toward these extraordinary claims in a passage that made me laugh:

Bentley told stories of remarkable healings. In fact, he claims that in his ministry 30 people have now been raised from the dead. Are these stories credible? A common pattern in his accounts of healing was an absence of specificity. Bentley claims that one man, unembalmed, had been dead for 48 hours and was in a coffin. When the family gathered around at a funeral home, the man knocked from inside the coffin to be let out.

But what are the specifics? Who was this man? What's his name? Where's the death certificate? And why not parade the man at Bentley's meetings? If I am ever raised from the dead through anyone's ministry, you can be sure I'll put in a guest appearance.

Bentley claimed that he would "soon go public with the evidence" of these dramatic healings. This, presumably, is the same sense of "soon" used by Christian evangelicals who claim that Jesus' 2000-year-overdue second coming is sure to happen any day now.

When the "healings" finally began, I'm sure it will surprise no one to hear that Bentley's focus was mainly on milking the gullible and the desperate for as much money as possible.

After preaching, Bentley took the offering. During the offering he asked "How much anointing do you want to receive?" Thus he linked the blessing we should receive with the amount of money we gave.

After a "general prayer for mass healing", Bentley then indicated that people who needed the most help should come forward to receive special prayer. Dembski's wife attempted to take their autistic son down to the altar, but was repeatedly prevented by the ushers:

Over an hour later my son with autism was still not able to get to the main floor for prayer. Ushers twice prevented that from happening. They noted that he was not in a wheelchair. Wheelchair cases clearly had priority — presumably they provided better opportunities for the cameras, which filmed everything.

...Our son was refused prayer twice because he didn't look the part, and he was told to wait still longer for a prayer that would never have been offered. And even those who looked the part seemed to look no better after Bentley's prayer — the exodus from the arena of people bound in wheelchairs was poignant.

My son's situation was not unique — a man with bone cancer and his wife traveled a long distance, were likewise refused prayer, and left in tears.

After waiting for over an hour, the Dembski family gave up and left. He describes the experience as "an education... about how easily religion can be abused, in this case to exploit our family" - a welcome conclusion from a person who's spent so much of his career encouraging belief in superstition and religious pseudoscience.

Todd Bentley isn't the only faith-healing charlatan out there. There are plenty of others working this highly profitable circuit - I recall my brush in 2006 with Jaerock Lee, a Korean evangelist whose fliers made similarly grandiose, but detail-free, claims about curing blindness, cancer, paralysis and even raising the dead. Interestingly, as I noted in my post at the time, William Dembski endorsed that con man. One wonders if this experience has done anything to disillusion him about faith healers in general.

January 7, 2010, 6:55 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink24 comments
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Losing Their Religion

I recently finished Daniel Radosh's Rapture Ready!, a book exploring Christian pop culture and some of its stranger manifestations, from theme parks like Florida's Holy Land Experience to the Ultimate Christian Wrestling pro circuit (no joke). But one event that he paid special attention to was Cornerstone, a Woodstock-like Christian music festival held each year in Illinois that routinely draws hundreds of acts and tens of thousands of people. According to Radosh, Cornerstone had a more open, authentic feeling than most of the events and festivals he attended, and was more welcoming of different perspectives than other Christian gatherings where all attendees are expected to march in lockstep with the religious right's political platform.

Radosh had this to say about the person whom he felt best summed up the Cornerstone ethic:

If there is a quintessential Cornerstone artist, it is probably David Bazan, who played the festival for the better part of a decade with the band Pedro the Lion. Among the qualities that made Bazan such an important figure here was not only the depth of his talent, but the fact that he actually had more credibility in the secular world than the Christian one. Bazan had been raised in a strict Pentecostal household, but had grown into the kind of Christian who treasures the Jesus who freed his followers from religious rules. In the book Body Piercing Saved My Life [get it? —Ebonmuse], Bazan describes his Cornerstone gigs - one of his last remaining attachments to the Christian culture industry - as missionary work... [p.175]

However, he did note that Bazan wasn't at the festival the year he attended (the book was published in 2008), and speculation was running rampant as to why. Some people guessed that he had been kicked off the grounds due to his habit of drinking during his sets (Cornerstone is officially a dry festival), or that he had gotten fed up with festival organizers hassling him about it, or that he had been disinvited because of the occasional cursing in his songs.

Well, as it turns out, the truth is rather different:

I worked as Bazan's publicist from 2000 till 2004. When I ran into him in April — we were on a panel together at the Calvin College Festival of Faith & Music in Grand Rapids — I hadn't seen him or talked to him in five and a half years. The first thing he said to me was "I'm not sure if you know this, but my relationship with Christ has changed pretty dramatically in the last few years."

He went on to explain that since 2004 he's been flitting between atheist, skeptic, and agnostic, and that lately he's hovering around agnostic...

Bazan's latest album, Curse Your Branches, is a confessional chronicle of his deconversion and the personal turmoil he went through as a result. Somewhat surprisingly, he returned to Cornerstone in 2009 to play some songs from it. According to the article, it met with a cautious reception - Bazan's fans from his evangelical days were still drawn to his music, but most of them didn't want to admit he had changed his mind and invented elaborate rationalizations for how his lyrics could be fitted into a Christian worldview. Nevertheless, the fact of his deconversion was widely known, even if not widely acknowledged.

Bazan himself, however, appears to have come to terms with the change in his beliefs and is far more at peace than he ever was:

After a long few years in the wilderness, Bazan seems happy — though he's still parsing out his beliefs, he's visibly relieved to be out and open about where he's not at. "It's more comfortable for me to be agnostic," he says. "There's less internal tension by far — that's even with me duking it out with my perception of who God is on a pretty regular basis, and having a lot of uncertainty on that level. For now, just being is enough. Whether things happen naturally, completely outside an author, or whether the dynamics of earth and people are that way because God created them — or however you want to credit it — if you look around and pay attention and observe, there is enough right here to know how to act, to know how to live, to be at peace with one another."

And David Bazan isn't the only Christian entertainer who's recently walked away from religion. Another interesting example is from the Coexist Comedy Tour, featuring stand-up comedians from a variety of different faiths. Except as it turns out, John Ross, who was the Christian member of the troupe, isn't a Christian anymore either.

Ross embraced Christianity enthusiastically. He taught youth groups, toured the nation with Christian punk rockers Anguish Unsaid and even got religious tattoos. (The dove on his calf and the "Jesus" in Japanese kanji on his neck now act as sight gags onstage.)

"From the beginning I had questions," Ross said, "but I would just write them off with 'Our understanding is not God's understanding.' Until the last few years. It's hard to keep doing that."

By Ross' account, he converted to Christianity as a means of escape from a broken and chaotic family, gravitating towards the stability that the evangelical church offered. But eventually, he realized that faith had only provided a way to sweep his problems and doubts under the carpet; it hadn't actually gotten rid of them. With that realization in hand, he had the key to freedom, and like David Bazan, he's found a new sense of peace and tolerance for himself:

Having left Christianity, Ross is surprised by how little has changed. "I'm still just as compassionate towards people," he explained. "I'm not going out and living in sin." The only difference "is that I don't feel guilty anymore," he says. "There's no war in my head."

It's worth wondering if the use of irony, which plays a vital role in both good music and good comedy, may have been a factor in both these deconversions. Evangelicalism is a creed built on certainty and on having all the answers, and many evangelical believers insist, or fear, that to doubt or to question any tenet of their faith could bring the whole thing crashing down (something we've seen demonstrated recently). But the nature of music (at least, music more sophisticated than bland, one-note Christian pop), and certainly the nature of comedy, requires self-doubt, introspection, and self-questioning. When these collide with the brittle certainties of fundamentalism, stories like these may be the inevitable result.

January 6, 2010, 6:38 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink20 comments
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When Prayer Fails

Dave Schmeltzer's book Not the Religious Type has many examples of what he calls "napkin stories" (i.e., short enough to write on a napkin), brief anecdotes from people who claim to have experienced miraculous events in their lives when they trusted in God. Here's a typical one:

I found out that my aunt and uncle's marriage was unraveling due to an affair. I fasted and prayed for them. After thirty-eight days, I was contacted by my uncle. He was about to sign a lease on an apartment to move in with his lover. Before he could sign, he felt an almost audible voice in his head say "stop." He went back to my aunt and started to see how their marriage could be saved. She found a way to forgive him.

I've observed in the past that evangelical religious belief is sustained by a kind of natural selection among ideas. Stories and personal testimonies that fit neatly into Christian narrative prototypes - stories that resonate with what Christians already believe - stir interest and excitement among believers who hear them, are repeated and passed on from person to person, and soon become common in the apologetic literature. But stories that can't be fitted into these templates don't draw interest or excitement from believers, are not repeated or passed on, and tend to be forgotten. Because of this tendency to count the hits and forget the misses, Christians uneducated in critical thinking tend to believe that answers to prayer are common.

But if you look at all the evidence, a different picture emerges. We hear stories about faithful Christians who are stricken ill, pray for healing, and then recover; we hear stories about evangelists who founded a ministry and saw it flourish and grow; we hear stories about nonbelievers who pray for God to reveal himself and then mysteriously receive aid from a helpful Christian stranger at just the right time. However, unless you're looking for them specifically, you probably don't hear stories about Christians who are stricken ill, pray for healing, and then die. You don't hear stories about churches and ministries that fail to attract members and fall apart, despite the hard work of their founders. You don't hear stories about nonbelievers who pray to God to reveal himself and then nothing out of the ordinary happens. It's not that these stories never get written - they do, and I'll give some examples - it's just that they don't take root and spread through the Christian community like the other kind.

In this post, I'll try to counteract that tendency by presenting some stories of when prayer fails. The first two examples are from Philip Yancey's book The Jesus I Never Knew:

One terrible week two people called me on successive days to talk about one of my books. The first, a youth pastor in Colorado, had just learned his wife and baby daughter were dying of AIDS. "How can I possibly talk to my youth group about a loving God after what has happened to me?" he asked. The next day I heard from a blind man who, several months before, had invited a recovering drug addict into his home as an act of mercy. Recently he had discovered that the recovering addict was carrying on an affair with his wife, under his own roof. "Why is God punishing me for trying to serve him?" he asked. Just then he ran out of quarters, the phone went dead, and I never heard from the man again. [p.159-160]

Even the "answers to prayer" confused me. Sometimes, after all, parking places did not open up and fountain pens stayed lost. Sometimes church people lost their jobs. Sometimes they died. A great shadow darkened my own life: my father had died of polio just after my first birthday, despite a round-the-clock prayer vigil involving hundreds of dedicated Christians. Where was God then? [p.165]

Or this tragic story of a young mother dying of cancer, who prayed with a hospital chaplain that God would give her the time to finish a needlepoint project she was making for her children:

I was totally hooked. We prayed. We believed. Jesus, this was the kind of prayer you could believe in. We were like idiots and fools.

A couple of days later I went to see her only to find the room filled with doctors and nurses. She was having violent convulsions and terrible pain. I watched while she died hard. Real hard.

As the door shut, the last thing I saw was the unfinished needlepoint lying on the floor.

Or Paul Barnes, former pastor of a 2,000-member evangelical megachurch, who resigned after admitting that he was homosexual:

"I have struggled with homosexuality since I was a 5-year-old boy... I can't tell you the number of nights I have cried myself to sleep, begging God to take this away."

Or this sad story of an injured man, unable to afford a doctor, who waited months on end for a miracle until he died:

"He read his Bible daily, he spent his full focus on God," said Webb. "And he was literally waiting and praying for a Job miracle. If anybody knows the Bible and knows Job, he really and fully believed that God was going to heal him just like he did Job, because he said he couldn't think of a better testimony to go out and to tell people."

And Dave Schmeltzer himself, though he repeatedly claims to be happy and blessed, admits that his life too has times of depression and darkness:

"...it's not as though my life is consistently such a powerful case for connection with this super-duper God. For someone who talks as much as I do about joy... why is it that a few times over the years I've mentioned to my wife that I feel as if my life has been squeezed out of me like water from a sponge, like I relate to Woody Allen's working title for Annie Hall (Anhedonia - the clinical inability to feel joy)."

This quote highlights an important point that shows how miracle stories get started. Every life, regardless of which religion you belong to or whether you believe in God, has its high points and low points. Every person experiences both favorable and unfavorable coincidences. Evangelicals are doing nothing more clever than giving God the credit for the good times, while ignoring or downplaying the bad ones - save for the rare glimpses of honesty like the ones cited above.

But whatever theological embellishments that evangelicals put on them, these ups and downs happen to everyone. Atheists, too, experience them; the only difference is that we recognize them for what they are, the inevitable working of chance, and don't claim them as evidence of some supernatural creature's favor or disfavor. And atheists, too, experience the same kind of favorable coincidences that Christians unhesitatingly ascribe to miracles; again, the difference is that we recognize that occasional striking coincidences are bound to happen in the course of any normal life.

December 26, 2009, 11:59 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink75 comments
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Christian Missionaries Are Doing God's Work

By Sarah Braasch

I leaned over to one of my teammates. "Why are there so many fat, white people on the plane? We're going to Ethiopia. We're flying Ethiopian Airlines."

"They're missionaries," she responded, completely uninterested.

"What?" I gasped. It had never occurred to me. I was not pleased.

Everything became so obvious. The Texas drawls. The recitations of Bible verses. The prayers. The seasoned braggarts recounting their prior trips to the Horn of Africa. The newbies airing out their nerves. They couldn't wait to get to Africa to start saving souls for Jesus. I wasn't sure I could take a full day of travel with a cabin full of bombastic Texas Christian missionaries, giddy with evangelical fervor. I tried to force myself to sleep.

As I slept on the plane, I dreamt of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics Opening Ceremonies. The fifty or so pick-up trucks circling hundreds of cheerleaders as they moved into formation, spelling out the words, "How Y'all Doin'?" The firecrackers exploding over the international crowd of tens of thousands. Then-President Clinton's pasted on smile, which looked more like a grimace of pain and mortification.

When I awoke, I felt troubled. I didn't want to be a missionary or an apostle. The very thought conjured up excruciating childhood memories of door-to-door witnessing as a Jehovah's Witness. I didn't want to be an imperialistic colonizing Westerner, bringing the good news to a nation of Godforsaken heathen hordes. I wasn't bringing them a religious message, but I was bringing them a universal human rights message. I was bringing them the good news of individualism and democracy and rule of law. I was bringing them the light of women's rights and constitutionalism and secularism. Wasn't I?

I leaned over to my teammate again. "We're not like them, are we? I mean, the missionaries. We're not like the missionaries, are we?"

"Yes, I'm afraid we are," she replied with the world-weary wisdom of a millennia-old sage.

"But, we're not going there to impose our beliefs on them. We're going there to learn, to study their political and legal systems. I mean, yes, ultimately we intend to make policy suggestions in a report, but it's not the same thing, is it?"

"Hmmm. Well, ultimately, we think we know better than they do how they should be running their country, so, really, it is the same thing," she said with tenderness and as little condescension as possible.

"Really?" I looked at her plaintively, as if I expected her to grant me absolution.

"Really." And, she shrugged her shoulders as if to say it wasn't hers to give.

"Then why do you do it?" I asked her in all seriousness.

"Because I can't do nothing, you know?"

"Yes, I do know."

"I think it's good to constantly question your own motives, to have that interior monologue, to struggle constantly with that ugly truth of human rights work, that, ultimately, we are going to a land not our own and telling a people whom we do not know how they should be living their lives," she said encouragingly.

"I like to think of it as liberating the oppressed. We're not telling them how to live their lives. We're saying that they have the right to decide for themselves how to live their lives."

"But, they're already doing that. They just don't place the same value on individualism that we do."

"I don't buy that. I just don't. I think that that cultural relativist stance is very convenient for those in power who wish to maintain the status quo. And, everywhere I've been people are struggling desperately for their individual rights. And, anyway, groups don't have rights. People do."

I spent the rest of the trip ruminating on this conversation. As soon as we were in the hotel shuttle van, I was thrilled to be rid of the missionaries. I didn't want to see another American, let alone another Texan, for the rest of our stay. Then we arrived at the Ghion Hotel.

The Ghion was a sea of entitled whiteness. The only dark faces were those of the employees and the babies. Throngs of white couples and families were milling around with their newly adopted Ethiopian newborns and toddlers. Even the youngest of these infants had huge, terrified eyes, as if they understood that they were being severed from their kindred irreconcilably. And, the missionaries were there. Many of the same faces that I had had the misfortune to encounter on the plane were there. They attacked the front desk with the same self-important hubris with which they attacked the un-baptized.

There was something about the entire scene that turned my stomach. The reek of colonialism sickened me: Ethiopia as baby and soul factory. I would have been more than happy to forego any creature comforts to not be staying in the same hotel as every other overfed Westerner in Addis Ababa. I was starting to hate myself by association.

We took refuge in the sanctum of our hotel room. My roommate immediately fell into a deep slumber. I decided to soak in the tub for a little ablution.

After my bath, my cigarettes were calling to me. I headed out to the lobby. I ordered a Coke from the bar and sat myself at the most isolated table in the room. There was a family with school-aged children watching the television at the opposite end of the room. They were obviously missionaries. They wore the telltale earnest expressions, sensible footwear and frumpy clothing. I didn't pay them any heed. I was concentrating on enjoying the novelty of my indoor cigarette.

Why can missionaries and evangelicals and proselytizers sense a former believer like sharks detect blood in the water, like rapists and child molesters can smell the lingering odor of victimization emanating from the pores of the abused?

"Are you in our group?" she asked me.

I tried to maintain a benign expression. "No, I'm here with my human rights clinic from my law school."

She sat herself down beside me. "Oh, wow. That's so interesting. Did you know that this is a Muslim country?" She looked like she could barely contain herself, she was so excited to get past the small talk and begin her theocratic spiel.

"Well, actually, it's a secular country. I mean they have a secular Constitution with freedom of religion. On paper, anyway." I can never bring myself to be really cruel or rude to someone, even if they are being obnoxious themselves. It's just not in my nature.

"Did you know that they chop people's hands off for stealing here?" Ugh.

"Actually, Ethiopia has had a large Christian population almost from the advent of Christianity. They're Coptic. Have you heard of the Solomonic line of kings?"

"That doesn't sound Christian," she responded. I was so not in the mood. I stared blankly off into the distance and blew smoke in her direction. It didn't seem to help.

"Are you Christian?" she asked me. She was eager to get a head start on her conversions to show off to her companions, and I'm sure I cut a far less intimidating figure, what with my white skin and Western demeanor.

"I was raised Christian, as a Jehovah's Witness."

She winced, "They're not Christian."

"But now I'm an atheist. And, a human rights activist."

She winced again. She looked a bit fearful, like she had bitten off more than she knew how to chew. This was an unanticipated challenge that had not been addressed in her preparatory apologetics and theocratic ministry education. She bit her lip. She decided to try again.

"Our church does human rights work too. Especially for women and children. Of course, we don't call it human rights work. We just call it God's work."

Both my cigarette and my patience were finished. I bade her good night and headed off to bed.

I couldn't sleep. My mind was racing. Why had I allowed her to upset me so much? Why was I so indignant? Of course the missionaries are obnoxious and ignorant and embarrassing. Of course they are doing more harm than good. Of course their barely disguised self-interest belies any superficial attempts at philanthropy. But, I couldn't quite put my finger on why I was so personally offended. Was it simply a matter of being forced to grapple with the morality of human rights work?

I couldn't turn my brain off. I was incensed. I replayed the conversation over and over again in my mind, and each time I came up with wittier, more acerbic and more biting comebacks. I wished that I had screamed or yelled. I wished that I had shamed her into packing up and going home. How did she not understand the harm she was causing?

Spreading the gospel is not human rights work. Missionaries spread ignorance, hatred, death, disease, famine, overpopulation and war. They spread AIDS. They propagate the sexual slavery of women and girls. They encourage the torture of witches. They are the apocalypse.

I think the missionaries are right. They are doing God's work. And exactly what kind of work is God doing in Africa? Apparently, he instructs parents to pour acid onto their children's faces to rid them of demons at the behest of church leaders. He leads parents to abandon their albino children, because they have been condemned as witches by their churches. He sends missionaries into communities that practice sorcery to teach them to torture one another for so doing as the Bible demands. And the American churches that established these Christian communities in Africa? They disclaim any responsibility for these atrocities. But, what happened to God? Apparently, God left when the missionaries did.

And, then, it hit me. Christian missionaries are undermining our ability to advocate on behalf of universal human rights. Undermining it to such an extent, that most of the world rejects international human rights as a strictly Western, and explicitly Christian, ideology. To the majority of the world, it is tantamount to the venom and vitriol spewed forth by the Christian ignoramuses imposing themselves upon the heathen Third World nations.

This phenomenon threatens not only the credibility and viability of international human rights organizations and activists from the West, but also of homegrown, grass roots movements within developing nations. Their governments attribute a Christian (i.e. Western) agenda to all human rights activists. This has become a particularly virulent epidemic in Muslim nations, especially for women's rights activists.

This problem is further exacerbated by the fact that, for most of the world, state and church are one and the same. There is no separation between religion and government. Thus, not only are Christian missionaries undermining human rights activism around the world, they are undermining the US government's ability to advocate on behalf of universal human rights. (This wasn't made any better by the previous US administration's explicitly Christian agenda.) Christian missionaries, unfortunately, are viewed as an aspect of US foreign policy. I shudder to think. Throw in some overt Christian proselytization by the US military, and you have a recipe for disaster.

We don't need anyone to think that the US military or government is doing God's work. I think we need a campaign to educate the international community that Christian missionaries represent only themselves and not very well at that. We need to start reminding the rest of the world that we are indeed a secular state, just like France. And, not like Texas.

December 14, 2009, 10:09 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink53 comments
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Theocratic Horror in Uganda

Back in January, I alluded briefly to the events in Uganda, where Christian abstinence-only programs have reversed the success of comprehensive sex ed and led to a rise in HIV infection rates. At the time, I mentioned Martin Ssempa, a pastor in the country's booming Pentecostal Christian movement, and his involvement in a campaign to criminalize homosexuality.

But this news has taken an even more ominous turn. Homosexuality was already illegal in Uganda, but a bill currently being discussed in that country's Parliament - and staunchly advocated by Ssempa and other Ugandan religious leaders - is even more draconian than the country's current repressive laws.

Under the bill, a person who was convicted of gay sex would receive life imprisonment. But if that person was found to be HIV-positive, this would result in a charge of "aggravated homosexuality", which carries the death penalty. Equally horribly, a person who was merely aware of homosexual activity but failed to report it to the police within 24 hours would themselves face a prison term - an extraordinarily evil measure that seems designed to deny gays and lesbians the right of shelter even among their own family and friends. Advocating for any increased rights for gays and lesbians, which would presumably include advocating a rollback of this bill, would also result in imprisonment.

This story is directly relevant to American readers because Uganda, in many ways, is the darling and the success story of the American religious right. As Kathryn Joyce explains in a Religion Dispatches interview with Rev. Kapya Kaoma, American evangelicals have been exporting their brand of conservative, homophobic culture-war politics to Africa for some time, and have had direct access to government officials in many African countries. (See also this commentary by Michelle Goldberg.)

Rick Warren in particular is held in high esteem there, and Martin Ssempa, the man who's pushing for the mass execution of homosexuals, is a friend and protege of Warren's. He's made multiple appearances at Warren's Saddleback Church in the past. And most shockingly, while Warren claims to have severed ties with Ssempa, he initially refused to denounce this proposed law! As Lisa Miller of Newsweek notes:

But Warren won't go so far as to condemn the legislation itself. A request for a broader reaction to the proposed Ugandan antihomosexual laws generated this response: "The fundamental dignity of every person, our right to be free, and the freedom to make moral choices are gifts endowed by God, our creator. However, it is not my personal calling as a pastor in America to comment or interfere in the political process of other nations."

When Warren was pressed on this point, his second response was to post a petulant reply to Twitter, claiming that because no one ever says anything about Christians being martyred for their faith, he shouldn't have to care about legislation that would kill gays and lesbians. The fact that one of the backers of this legislation was his protege is something that he doesn't seem to feel any guilt or moral responsibility at all for.

After several weeks of solid negative coverage, Warren finally issued a condemnation of the bill. Yet, as Archy points out, most of his stated reasons boil down to a claim that it would make the church's mission more difficult, and he tries to dodge some inconvenient connections between himself and influential figures of the Ugandan government (see also). In the end, Warren did the right thing - but only just barely, and again, it's extremely telling how much heat he had to take before he could be shamed into speaking out.

The theocratic terror state proposed in Uganda is the logical endpoint of the religious right's anti-gay agenda and its inflammatory, homophobic rhetoric. Having nurtured and fostered this movement for so long, it's much too late for them to wash their hands clean of it now. If they had any conscience, they would recognize the horrible evil they've created and would repent and devote themselves to opposing this bill before it comes to pass. But instead, their response has been noncommittal, tepid, even mildly supportive. That speaks worlds about what their true intentions are, what they hope to do in Uganda, and what they would do in America and the rest of the world if they have the chance.

December 13, 2009, 12:59 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink16 comments
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Too High a Price to Pay for Comfort

Religion inspires billions of people around the world today to live honest, decent, law-abiding lives. Faith-based charities of every religious tradition have brought comfort, hope, and healing to millions of people who would otherwise starve, lay homeless, and be left to fend for themselves. Religion gives comfort and consolation to so many who have faced adversity in their lives, whether it be suffering from illness, natural disaster, or the loss of someone whom they loved.

http://www.altmuslim.com/a/a/a/2837/

The good that's done by religion, the peace and comfort it gives to millions of faithful, is often cited as a reason to be a believer despite the manifest harm that it does in the world. Often, paired with this argument, the charge is made that atheists don't understand the solace people find in religion - that we seek to tear down and destroy without truly knowing what we're attacking. I have a few words to say to both of these claims.

I understand why people are Roman Catholic. I understand the comfort of tradition and ritual, the deep sense of grounding that comes from being part of the world's largest and most ancient Christian faith. I understand the attraction of participating in the sacraments as they've been practiced for millennia, the sense of treading in the footsteps where the first Christians walked. I understand the intellectual depth and heft that comes of having nearly two thousand years of theological reflection and elaboration to draw on.

The former No. 2 official of the Catholic church in Chicago admitted that he knew 25 priests broke the law by sexually abusing children but did not report them, according to depositions made public Tuesday.

..."I knew the civil law considered it a crime," Goedert said in the deposition.

—"Bishop remained silent about 25 abusive priests." The Chicago Sun-Times, 22 July 2009.

I understand why people are Jewish. I understand the comfort of heritage, of identity, of continuity with the past that's been faithfully preserved in written text and living tradition. I understand the pull of cultural memory, of remembering the thread that runs unbroken through the generations and reenacting the sacred rituals as they've always been practiced. I understand the bittersweet joy and stubborn pride that comes with the knowledge that enemies have sought to eradicate your people for millennia, whether by law, by steel or by flame, and every time, your ancestors emerged from the ashes, battered but unbowed. I understand the appeal of having a true homeland, a place in the world that is finally yours and where you can dwell in peace and security.

Plastered across Israeli TV screens for the past week have been pictures of settler youths, some as young as 13, stoning and then trying to lynch a teenage Palestinian in a Gaza village.

...That thump is the sound of a rock thrown by a teenage Jewish settler hitting an unconscious Hilal Majaida in the head. The 16-year-old Palestinian was set upon by a mob of Jewish settler youth, who'd taken over a house in Hilal Majaida's village of Mouasi in Gaza.

—"Israeli settlers attempt to lynch Palestinian teenager." The World Today (Australia), 8 July 2005.

I understand why people are Muslim. I understand the comfort that comes from belonging to a worldwide community of fellow believers, one united by faith and creed without regard to race or nation. I understand the vigor and pride of the world's youngest monotheism, the heritage rich with scientific and artistic accomplishment. I understand the bracing certainty of possessing God's actual words exactly as he intended them to be read and following the last and truest prophet he sent to the world. And I understand the appeal of simplicity, the attractiveness of stripping away all corruptions and confusions and everything unnecessary, producing a faith as clean and pure and directed in purpose as the desert lands where it was born.

Taliban insurgents in southern Afghanistan have executed a school teacher in front of his pupils for refusing to comply with warnings to stop educating girls.

..."They dragged the teacher from the classroom and shot him at the school gate," said Abdul Rahman Sabir, Helmand's police chief.

"He had received many warning letters from the Taliban to stop teaching, but he continued to do so happily and honestly - he liked to teach boys and girls."

—"Taliban execute teacher in front of his pupils for educating girls." The Telegraph, 17 December 2005.

And I understand why people are evangelical Christians. I understand the ecstasy of being born again, the sense of being unconditionally forgiven and cleansed. I understand the excitement of being on a grand spiritual mission, the sense of being a foot soldier in a quest to save the world. I understand the appeal of answered prayer, the promise of miracles all around. I understand the belief that the material world is like a thin curtain over a far more important and unseen world, and the appeal of a book which claims to be the inerrant and infallible word of God to believers, a book which pulls back that curtain and unlocks all the secrets of the future and the world to come. I understand the appeal of a personal relationship with a loving savior who promises he will never abandon nor forsake those who love him, even to the end of the world.

But an exploitative situation has now grown into something much more sinister as preachers are turning their attentions to children - naming them as witches. In a maddened state of terror, parents and whole villages turn on the child. They are burnt, poisoned, slashed, chained to trees, buried alive or simply beaten and chased off into the bush.

Pastor Joe Ita is the preacher at Liberty Gospel Church in nearby Eket. 'We base our faith on the Bible, we are led by the holy spirit and we have a programme of exposing false religion and sorcery.... Parents don't come here with the intention of abandoning their children, but when a child is a witch then you have to say "what is that there? Not your child."'

—"Children are targets of Nigerian witch hunt." The Observer, 9 December 2007.

I understand, but I do not believe. No matter how comforting these faiths may be to their followers, they are still based on supernatural claims for which I see no good evidence. Worse, most of them make assertions that are plainly based on the superstitious ideas of primitive people, and are flatly contradicted by everything we've learned about human history and the laws by which the cosmos works. I understand the appeal of culture and tradition, but these are not good enough reasons for belief when these religions make factual claims that are so plainly untrue.

If these factual falsehoods were all that was wrong with religion, one might still argue that it's worth believing for the sake of the comfort that belief brings. But religion has also wrought terrible evil in the world. And the unnecessary pain, suffering, and destruction that faith has caused is too high a price to pay for comfort. A total catalogue of these harms would be impossibly long, but I can list a few of the major ones: the terror of children who are taught they'll be tortured eternally if they stray; the monstrous crimes of predatory clergy that were long concealed and abetted by their superiors; the suffering and degradation of women whose faith teaches them that they are inferior; the bloody holy wars waged in the name of God; the violent censorship of free speech and free minds; morality based on fear and obedience rather than reason and conscience; the opposition to the advance of human rights; the opposition to science and knowledge; the propping up of kings and theocracies; and most grievous, the stifling of curiosity, teaching people to be satisfied with ignorance.

Whatever comfort religion brings, whatever solace it brings, it isn't worth it if this is the price we must pay. There are other, better ways to find comfort, ways that have just as much potential for good without so much potential for evil. There are countless philosophies that, like religion, accentuate the positive traits of humanity, but that, unlike religion, don't intensify the negative ones.

August 12, 2009, 6:37 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink46 comments
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Mr. T Tackles the Problem of Evil

It's not only professional philosophers and theologians who have an opinion on matters touching the sacred. Sometimes, gold-jewelry-wearing, mohawk-having, former '80s television and movie action stars have words of wisdom to express on these weighty matters. Like, for instance, Mr. T, who recently gave an interview to Bizarre magazine in which he made a very interesting, and unintentionally revealing, comment.

The interviewer asked T if he'd ever seen a UFO, to which he responded:

I'm a Christian – I really don't believe in UFOs.

What one has to do with the other is not clear to me, but leave that aside. Mr. T is in fact an evangelical Christian, as he confirms in this Beliefnet interview:

I am a sinner who has been saved by grace. It's by the grace of God that I'm here. We all have sinned and fallen short on God's glory. I come home and I ask God to forgive me for my sins. Everyday I ask for a new cleansing. I say, "God, let me show kindness to someone, let me give someone hope. Let me be a light at the end of a tunnel for somebody." I tell people, they say I'm a farmer, I plant the seed of hope, plant the seed of inspiration, plant the seed so they can start praying and believing again.

He credits his surviving a bout with cancer (he had, yes, T-cell lymphoma - no, I'm not making that up) to his faith:

The story of Job gave me strength when I had cancer. I said, "T, if you just hang in there, God will give you double for your troubles." That's what I was taught in church and that's what happened to Job. What he lost, he gained more in the end. Job said, "Though you slay me, yet will I trust you." God giveth and God taketh away. Blessed be his holy name." And that's how I live.

So far, this is the standard evangelical Christian platter of beliefs. But in the Bizarre interview, the interviewer asks Mr. T a different question, and his answer gives the game away:

If you could have a magical power, what would it be?
Easy question! That's too, too easy Alix! Wow. I appreciate your sweetness giving me such an easy question! I'd have the power to heal little children. I'd want to make sure they all got an education and weren't scrabbling around in garbage and eating scraps of junk, like the kids in India shown in that movie, Slumdog Millionaire. I hope the people that made that film are investing some of the profits into cleaning up the area where they filmed, and doing something to improve those kids' lives. Yeah, I'd want to help the tiny ones who are blind, who have diseases like AIDS and problems like muscular dystrophy... I'd heal the children and save the babies.

If he had any magical power, Mr. T says, he'd end poverty and cure disease among the world's children. In fact, he doesn't even have to think hard about this: he considers it an "easy question".

But he seems to have forgotten something important. Mr. T is an evangelical Christian and therefore, presumably, he believes in a god who has the power to do all those things at this very moment. So why doesn't God do that? Does Mr. T even realize that he's just inadvertently outlined one of the strongest pieces of evidence against his own religious beliefs?

Theologians have tied themselves in logical knots for millennia trying to explain what reasons God could have for allowing evil and suffering. But Mr. T, in his own inimitable style, brushes those convoluted theodicies aside by saying that the choice to end evil, if he had the power to do it, would be an easy one. Either he is a more compassionate and loving person than the god he claims to serve, or else that god does not exist.

Mr. T isn't the first Christian to contradict his own beliefs like this. C.S. Lewis did the same thing, as I pointed out in "The Theodicy of Narnia". They, like many other Christians, insist on believing in a god who has deep and mysterious reasons for allowing persistent and terrible evils. But both of them, when apologetic considerations are not uppermost in their minds, inadvertently contradict their own belief by stating that of course they would create a world without evil if they could.

And of course they would - as would any of us, I hope. Of course we would abolish evil if we could. Basic decency and simple compassion mandate no other conclusion. It's only the necessity of accounting for the evil that does exist, in a world claimed to be ruled by a benevolent deity, that forces religious apologists to bend over backwards trying to excuse the inexcusable. But when religious concerns are not at the forefront, when simple human conscience is allowed to express itself, most believers prove by their words and actions that they themselves are better and more rational than the faith they claim to represent.

May 30, 2009, 11:11 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink21 comments
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The Moral High Ground

It's common for fundamentalist Christians to think of themselves as the moral guardians of our culture, a bulwark against the rampant sex and violence in the mass media. But this self-flattering caricature runs up against inconvenient reality: there is plenty of evidence which shows that Christians as a whole are every bit as drawn to sex and violence as everyone else.

One of the best examples of this is Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ. This movie had a worldwide gross of over $600 million, of which we can safely assume most came from Christian viewers. Of the movie's two-plus hour runtime, nearly all is devoted to depicting the torture and execution of Jesus in obsessive, graphic detail, from brutal floggings to the hammering in of crucixifion nails, even adding extra tortures not mentioned in the gospels. Film critic Roger Ebert called Passion "the most violent film I have ever seen", and Slate critic David Edelstein suggested it should be renamed "The Jesus Chainsaw Massacre".

Another example is the video game Left Behind: Eternal Forces, a real-time strategy game based on the Left Behind novels. In the game, players take the role of commander of the "Tribulation Force", an army of Christian believers, converted after the rapture, who must battle the forces of the Antichrist. In essence, the player's mission is to either convert or kill all non-Christians. U.N. soldiers are represented as minions of the Antichrist, and the player characters exclaim "Praise the Lord!" each time they shoot one of them.

And then, of course, there are the violent and gory scenes from Left Behind itself, where Jesus returns to earth to slaughter his enemies by the millions:

"Tens of thousands of foot soldiers dropped their weapons, grabbed their heads or their chests, fell to their knees, and writhed as they were invisibly sliced asunder. Their innards and entrails gushed to the desert floor, and as those around them turned to run, they too were slain, their blood pooling and rising in the unforgiving brightness of the glory of Christ."

For deeply religious Christians, it seems that violence is acceptable as long as it's depicted in the proper religious context. When it's presented as God's righteous judgment, they find violence perfectly okay and often even praiseworthy. The Bible itself, of course, is the greatest example of this - considering the many brutal slaughters and wars of extermination it records the Israelites waging against their enemies at God's command, none of which ever seem to give fundamentalists any concern. (The sexual content of the Bible doesn't bother them either.)

Turning to the topic of sex, there's little difference to be found between Christians and non-Christians here as well - or rather, if there is, it's in the wrong direction. It's long been known that, statistically, socially conservative states and evangelical Protestants in particular have higher rates of teen pregnancy, divorce, and STD infection. The "abstinence-only" sex education programs and virginity pledges so beloved by religious conservatives have repeatedly failed to make any measurable difference in sexual behavior.

Corroborating evidence comes from another study, by sociologist Benjamin Edelman, concerning access to online pornography. It turns out that of all American states, the one with the highest rate of subscriptions to adult sites is the socially conservative, Mormon-dominated Utah. The FBI also confirms that Utah outranks most other states when it comes to web searches for explicit content. Nor is this just a Mormon thing, as Edelman adds:

"Subscriptions are slightly more prevalent in states that have enacted conservative legislation on sexuality," Edelman writes. In the 27 states where "defense of marriage" amendments have been adopted, there were 11 percent more porn subscribers than in other states, he reports. Use is higher also in states where more people agree with the statement "I never doubt the existence of God."

Clearly, there's a great deal of sexual repression lurking beneath the surface facades of piety. When it comes to sex and violence, religious teachings may instill an outward attitude of condemnation, but they evidently make little difference in people's actual desires and behaviors.

March 27, 2009, 6:40 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink20 comments
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