The Price of Abstinence
A much-heralded study in the January issue of the journal Pediatrics has concluded that the premarital "abstinence pledges" so beloved by evangelical Christians are ineffective. Teenagers who sign up for religious programs such as True Love Waits or Silver Ring Thing, in which participants pledge to remain abstinent until marriage, are just as likely to have premarital sex as nonpledgers, and significantly less likely to use contraception when they do. They also contract STDs at the same rates as nonpledgers, have their first sexual encounter at the same average age as nonpledgers, and have the same average number of sexual partners as nonpledgers. In short, in every way that can be measured, these programs are completely useless and may be actively harmful. (Also, note that all the "abstinence pledge" programs are specifically Christian in nature and content - which has led to First Amendment lawsuits when their advocates try to get them taught in public schools.)
However, we do have a contrary view from William McGurn in the Wall Street Journal, which has some fallacies to be dispensed with. McGurn first points out that:
...the only way the study's author, Janet Elise Rosenbaum of Johns Hopkins University, could reach such results was by comparing teens who take a virginity pledge with a very small subset of other teens: those who are just as religious and conservative as the pledge-takers.
He treats this as if it were a dirty trick, when in fact it's basic statistics: to eliminate confounding factors from your results, the best method is to compare two populations that are similar in every respect except the variable you want to study. That's exactly what Rosenbaum's study (full text online here) did, choosing two groups of teenagers with similar social and religious backgrounds, except that one group took virginity pledges and the other did not. McGurn apparently does not dispute the conclusion that the pledges made no difference in behavior. Nevertheless:
...virginity pledging teens were considerably more conservative in their overall sexual behaviors than teens in general -- a fact that many media reports have missed cold.
...Let's put this another way. The real headline from this study is this: "Religious Teens Differ Little in Sexual Behavior Whether or Not They Take a Pledge."
McGurn cites no studies in support of this conclusion, and I'd very much like to see his evidence. Needless to say, most of the studies I'm aware of have found precisely the opposite: the most religiously conservative areas of the country have the highest rates of STDs and teen pregnancy, and abstinence-only sex ed does nothing to reduce these problems. A recent article in the New Yorker by Margaret Talbot, Red Sex, Blue Sex, cites a study by the sociologist Mark Regnerus:
Regnerus argues that religion is a good indicator of attitudes toward sex, but a poor one of sexual behavior, and that this gap is especially wide among teen-agers who identify themselves as evangelical.
...On average, white evangelical Protestants make their "sexual début" — to use the festive term of social-science researchers — shortly after turning sixteen... Another key difference in behavior, Regnerus reports, is that evangelical Protestant teen-agers are significantly less likely than other groups to use contraception.
The article goes on to observe that socially conservative, more religious "red" states also have higher teen pregnancy rates, higher rates of STD infection, and higher rates of divorce, the latter probably because of their lower median age of marriage. The abstinence-only programs so popular in those states have done nothing to deter this. In fact, it's made the problem worse by ensuring that teens who do have sex are ill-equipped to protect themselves. The evidence is clear that comprehensive sex ed programs which teach accurate information about contraception have proven superior every time they're put to the test. If we expect teenagers to act like adults, we need to treat them like adults.
But abstinence-only programs exact a higher price than this. Consider their impact in Africa, which is still battling a massive AIDS epidemic. In countries like Uganda, abstinence-only programs championed by Christian pastors like Martin Ssempa, who's a close friend and ally of Rick Warren, have reversed the success of comprehensive sex ed programs, leading to a rise in new HIV infection rates among the rural poor. (Ssempa followed up his success in the abstinence-only campaign by spearheading a political initiative to imprison homosexuals.)
It's unlikely that religious advocates of abstinence-only programs will be deterred by any of these facts. Pleasing their notion of God matters more to them than the lives or well-being of real people, and so in their minds, as long as we're teaching the "right" things, the results are beside the point. This makes it all the more important that we in the reality-based community, who value human welfare more highly than obedience to dogma, do not give up the push to ensure that all people have access to accurate information about sex and contraception.
No Holy Ground
The world's attention has been riveted these past few days by Israel's assault on Gaza, in an attempt to oust the Hamas-run government and put a stop to rocket attacks on southern Israel. Hundreds of Palestinians were reported killed in a wave of airstrikes, over a thousand wounded, and as of this writing, a ground invasion looms as a continuing possibility. Although the conflict began after a six-month ceasefire expired and Hamas refused to renew it, it's now Israel that's rejecting calls for a temporary truce to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza.
The Israeli invasion has drawn a chorus of condemnation from around the world, except in the U.S., where politicians from both parties march in a virtual pro-Israel lockstep. (This despite the fact, as Glenn Greenwald notes, that opinions on the matter among the American public are far more similar to those elsewhere in the world.) The confluence of a hawkish, politically influential pro-Israel lobby and the influence of a major voting bloc of right-wing Christians probably has a lot to do with this.
The Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed is something I've never seen the sense of taking sides in. To all except mindless hyper-partisans, it should be obvious that neither Israel nor Palestine is wholly at fault, and as far as I'm concerned, there are plenty of good reasons for blame on both sides. Hamas is deliberately provoking Israel with attacks on civilians, counting on massive Israeli retaliation to cause death and destruction among the Palestinians so that they'll rise up in anger and rally to Hamas' banner - callously using the suffering of its own people to shore up its own support. Israel, for its part, is suffocating Gaza with military barricades - preventing even necessities like food and medicine from reaching innocent Palestinians - and using its much greater military power in overwhelming reprisals against defenseless targets, spilling far more blood among Palestinians than any terrorist attack ever did for Israelis. Neither side has made any serious, sustained effort to lower the tension level or restrain itself in the service of a lasting peace.
As in almost all of the world's lasting trouble spots, this conflict has its origins in religion. Both sides are poisoned by a toxic mixture of beliefs about "promised lands" and "chosen people", which inevitably inspire hatred and xenophobia against members of the out-group. Two thousand years and more of bloodshed have grown from that bitter seed.
On the Israeli side, these beliefs manifest in the hardcore settlers who believe that controlling the entire occupied territories is their God-given right. In one especially horrifying incident, a mob of settlers tried to lynch a Palestinian family (page has sound), whose lives were only saved by a group of journalists on the scene. These settlements need to be rolled back for there to be any lasting peace, but Israel lacks the political will.
On the Palestinian side and throughout the Muslim world, these beliefs manifest in rampant and vicious anti-Semitism, including teaching schoolchildren the ancient blood libels handed down from medieval Christianity. (See also articles 22 and 32 of the Hamas Covenant.)
Christianity also plays a major, if indirect, role in this conflict. Mostly this is due to right-wing evangelicals, who see the Jews as pawns that need to be moved into place so that they can play their part in the apocalypse by being sacrificed. (This view was most infamously expounded by Pat Robertson when he said that Ariel Sharon's stroke was because God struck him down as punishment for trying to trade land for peace.) Not only have these groups prevented the American government from applying any significant political pressure to Israel, they themselves have inflamed the conflict by actively encouraging further Israeli settlement in the occupied territories, even getting churches to "adopt" particular settlements.
It's often stated, as if it were greatly ironic, that the so-called Holy Land is the site of the most enduring and deeply felt hatred on earth. But in truth, that's exactly what we should expect. The whole point of a "holy land" is that said land is valued irrationally highly, much higher than any material concern would ever justify. Such belief is bound to clash violently with the lives and well-being of humans; that is what always happens when things are valued more highly than people. And the danger is far greater in this case since it's not just one, but all the world's major monotheistic faiths that place this insane importance on a tiny and inconsequential strip of ground.
When fanatics of opposing sects go to battle, with each side convinced of its own righteousness and inevitable victory, the only possible outcome is never-ending bloodshed and chaos. In truth, I see only one way out of the destruction that holy-land mythology has wrought on humanity, and that's for all sides to hear the call of reason and turn away from their suicidal mutual destruction. But with the combatants blinded by self-righteousness and zealotry, I see little prospect of that happening any time in the near future. The fertile crescent that birthed destructive fundamentalism may well be the one place on Earth where it survives the longest.
Rebutting Reasonable Faith: Is There Non-Culpable Unbelief?
Early on in Daylight Atheism's tenure, I wrote several critical reviews of the CAP Alert site, but I later gave that up as providing insufficient sport. However, I've set my sights on a new and worthier target: the Christian apologist William Lane Craig and his weekly Q&A Archive from his Reasonable Faith website. I'll begin today with question #88:
I would like to know from you if I, as an atheist, am going to be punished by God for not believing in him. If I, after looking objectively at all the evidence, come to the conclusion that I have not arrived here as the result of a divine plan but merely as a consequence of merely materialistic processes, do I deserve to be denied the gift of eternal life? If when coming face to face with God after death, I reveal that this was a position that I honestly came to after much investigation and really trying to understand nature?
This is an excellent question, and Craig's answer is illuminative of his theology and the rational faults in it. He begins by claiming that we're all condemned by default, regardless of our honesty or lack thereof:
...biblical Christianity teaches that no one is good enough to merit heaven. To be judged on the basis of our deeds would be the worst possible thing that could happen to us, for none of us measures up to God's moral law (perfection).... Hence, salvation can only be received as a gift of God's grace; there's nothing we can do to earn it.
...I remember when as a non-Christian I first heard the Gospel. I was leading a pretty morally upright life—externally, at least—, and yet when I learned that according to the Bible, I was guilty before God and therefore on my way to hell, I had absolutely no problem believing that. When I looked into my own heart, I saw the blackness within, how everything I did was tainted by selfishness. I knew how wretched I was really was [sic].
The first point to observe here is how Christianity exaggerates the badness of human nature. Starting with the reasonable premise that everyone puts a foot wrong from time to time, theologians distort this almost beyond recognition into the belief that we are all completely depraved and vile and that everything we do stems from evil motives. As Craig's reply shows, this serves their evangelistic purpose by giving Christians a justification to say that everyone is deserving of damnation and therefore everyone needs their salvation. But the psychological harm and suffering caused by this vicious false belief is incalculable. A belief system which taught that human beings are capable of goodness would not only result in less individual misery, but would very likely give rise to more actual good in the world.
The second thing worth noting is that, by divorcing salvation from good deeds or even the intent to do good deeds, evangelical Christians have made getting to Heaven an entirely arbitrary reward. In essence, they believe that there's a secret password to heaven - one that's hidden among thousands of indistinguishable alternatives - and the only thing that matters about your time on Earth is whether you can discover it. Raising a family, falling in love, showing compassion to your fellow humans, creating beauty, working to advance the knowledge or the common good of humanity - all these activities, in Craig's worldview, are meaningless and merit nothing. Finding the hidden password is the only thing that matters, and if you fail to find it, you're consigned to eternal torment. This view reduces our existence to the level of a lab rat running the experimenter's maze.
Against the self-evident and appalling injustice of this theology, Craig falls back on his second assertion. Incredibly, he claims that there is no such thing as honest unbelief: that all human beings are aware not just of the existence of God but of the truth of his specific set of religious doctrines. Here's how he puts it:
My view is that, ultimately speaking, there is no such thing as non-culpable unbelief. For, first, there is good evidence for theism which is readily accessible to all, such as I share in Reasonable Faith (3rd ed.), and no comparably good argument for atheism...
Second, and more importantly, God has not abandoned us to work out by our own ingenuity and cleverness whether or not He exists. Rather His Holy Spirit speaks to the heart of every man, convicting him of sin and drawing him to God.
Craig's claim that there is "no comparably good argument" for atheism is obviously just rhetorical cheerleading. Even he's acknowledged the strength of atheist arguments on other occasions, such as when he called the problem of evil a "killer argument" for atheism (see reference).
But as he admits, in his theology rational arguments are irrelevant. No matter what the evidence shows or what conclusion reason supports, Craig maintains that all human beings know the truth of his form of Christianity and only deliberate rebellion causes any of us to deny this. Is this not an astoundingly arrogant claim?
This culminating absurdity does give Craig a response to the argument from religious confusion, but only at the cost of adding a wholly new and far more irrational belief to his faith: the belief that every single person in the world who is not an evangelical Christian is lying about what they know and what they believe. This view requires him to impute deliberate dishonesty and malevolence to the vast majority of his fellow human beings. And this is what he calls "reasonable faith"?
We atheists know full well that our conclusions are sincere, our position honestly arrived at and based on our best evaluation of the evidence. Of course, we can never prove that to Craig and other apologists who are driven to claim that we are all liars in deliberate rebellion, so that they may avoid having to face the unjust implications of their theology. It may well imply that William Lane Craig lacks confidence in his own beliefs, if he cannot abide the idea of sincere dissent and must instead assert that we all secretly agree with him, whether we admit it or not.
Other posts in this series:
Rick Warren? Shame On You, Obama!
Via multiple sources (Greta Christina, Pam Spaulding, Glenn Greenwald, Americans United, as well as others), this unpleasant news: President-elect Barack Obama has apparently chosen megachurch pastor Rick Warren to give a speech at his inauguration day.
If you're not familiar with Rick Warren, or if you only know him as the author of The Purpose-Driven Life, here's a few of his greatest hits:
• Warren has been a dedicated enemy of marriage equality, equating gay rights to incest and pedophilia (source), and was a fervent supporter of the pro-bigotry Proposition 8. He is against civil unions for gay couples (source). He has even, arguably, given his support to African Christians who want homosexuality to be illegal (source).
• He's also rabidly anti-choice, comparing abortion to the Holocaust (source).
• Just for good measure, he's said that atheists are not qualified for the presidency:
"I could not vote for an atheist because an atheist says, 'I don't need God,'... They're saying, 'I'm totally self-sufficient by [myself].' And nobody is self-sufficient to be president by themselves. It's too big a job."
• And, oh yes, he's a creationist.
If Warren seems more approachable or more reasonable than the hate-spewing religious right leaders we all know, it's only because he presents his bigotry in a kinder, gentler facade. His church does occasionally discuss other issues, such as AIDS in Africa or global warming, but it takes more than that to earn my respect when he still spends so much time and energy pounding the religious right's standard causes.
In fact, Warren has said that only five issues are "non-negotiable" - his opposition to abortion, stem-cell research, cloning, gay rights and euthanasia - which puts him firmly in the camp of the other religious hatemongers. Apparently, if push came to shove, he would discard efforts to help the suffering of AIDS orphans, prevent the genocide in Darfur, or avert the looming threat of climate change in order to prevent gay couples from having civil unions. For all the high-minded media talk about the "new evangelicals", Warren is not substantially different from the old guard, and his beliefs are grounded in the same bigoted and ignorant worldview that motivates his predecessors. He's said himself that the difference between himself and Jerry Falwell is mainly "a matter of tone" (source).
Inviting him to speak at the inauguration is a terrible decision. The fact is, I understand why Obama made it - I think I grasp the political considerations that went into it - and I still think it's a bad decision.
I suspect Obama thought that, by inviting Warren, he would seem sensible and centrist in the eyes of the public, and might peel off some evangelical voters from the Republican coalition. And since Warren's speech is a symbolic gesture only, he probably thinks that his policies once in office will make up any lost goodwill among progressive voters.
As I said, I assume that was the Obama team's political calculus, but I think the real effects will be different. I think this invitation will be viewed as a slap in the face by liberal and progressive Americans - the very people who supported Obama's bid for the presidency and worked to put him into office. And while it may generate some fleeting goodwill among evangelical voters, I have no doubt that the vast majority of them will vote Republican in the next election anyway. Meanwhile, the lost goodwill among Obama's supporters may not be as easy to win back as he apparently thinks. It's very likely that he'll need us again to pressure Congress to support his proposals. Will we be willing to work again for him, having been denigrated in this way?
Insulting your allies for the sake of a futile gesture to your sworn enemies is a bad idea and bad politics. And I suspect the blowback has been far more intense and sustained than Obama's team anticipated, causing controversy and embarrassment where they had hoped to avoid both. Although I still consider Obama's election a tremendous net positive for America, this shameful pick may be a sign of how much work we'll have to do in the next eight years to prod our leaders toward implementing a truly progressive agenda.
A Glimpse of the Garden
By way of Pandagon, I came across this incredible story from NPR's This American Life, an hourlong report on, and interview with, the evangelical pastor Carlton Pearson.
Pearson was once one of the rising stars of the religious right: a hardcore Pentecostal preacher, head of an Oklahoma megachurch, a protege of Oral Roberts and a spokesman for George Bush's faith-based initiatives who had the ear of the White House under three different presidents. He preached alongside Jerry Falwell, Jim Bakker, Pat Robertson and other leading lights of the evangelical world, hosted his own show on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, and founded Azusa, a wildly popular Christian festival that combined ministry and gospel music. He had it all, and could have kept it all, except for one thing: a rebellion of conscience which convinced him that the Christianity he was teaching was morally wrong. And for the sake of that conscience, he lost nearly everything.
I've written before about fervent believers who've become atheists, like the former Pentecostal preacher James Young (An Inspiring Story), or the religion reporter William Lobdell (Nothing Behind the Altar). Pearson hasn't gone that far - he's still a Christian, though he now holds a universalist view he calls "the gospel of inclusion". But he's eliminated eternal damnation from his theology, and even that small step towards freethought was enough to get him branded a heretic and earn the scorn and exclusion of his former colleagues and friends.
In his youth, Pearson was a fiery Pentecostal; he was hailed as a hero by his congregation after he exorcised demons out of his girlfriend at a revival meeting. Of these days, he said in the interview, "I expected demons. I saw them everywhere, so that was part of my life... The Devil was as present and as large as God. He had the people. He was ultimately going to get most of the people. Demons were all over, in the church, in the schools, in the neighborhoods. Everything was a devil. So if you believe it, you experience it."
Pearson attended Oral Roberts University, where he joined the World Action Singers, a student choir that Roberts groomed to perform on the networks and other mainstream media. He became a friend and protege of Oral Roberts himself, who called Pearson his "black son". He ultimately quit the group after battles with Roberts' son Richard Roberts, though he and Oral remained close.
After leaving ORU, Pearson founded his own church, Higher Dimensions. Powered by his undisputed charisma, the church flourished and grew, reaching a membership of around 5,000. Other, still-influential megachurch preachers such as T.D. Jakes owe their success to Pearson's initial mentoring.
The turning point came in the late 1990s. Pearson, until then, had preached a conventional evangelical theology - eternal damnation for sinners, hellfire and gnashing of teeth, and being born again in Jesus as the only way to be saved. But a small seed of doubt was growing in him, and eventually it began to bloom. In the interview, he describes his moment of epiphany while at home one night watching television, a news report about war and famine in Rwanda:
"I'm watching these little kids with swollen bellies, and it looks like their skin is stretched across their little skeletal remains, their hair is kind of red from malnutrition... the babies have got flies in the corners of their eyes and mouths, and they reach for their mother's breast and the mother's breast looks like a little pencil hanging there, and the baby's reaching for the breast, there's no milk...
"I said, 'God, I don't know how you could call yourself a loving, sovereign God and allow these people to suffer this way and just suck them right into Hell,' which was my assumption.
"...The way the God of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, is presented: he's a monster. The God we've been preaching is a monster. He's worse than Saddam, he's worse than Osama bin Laden, he's worse than Hitler, the way we've presented him. Because Hitler just burned six million Jews, but God's going to burn at least six billion people, and burn them forever. He has this customized torture chamber, called Hell, where he's going to torment, torture. Not for a few minutes or a few days or a few hours or a few weeks. Forever."
Many Christian believers experience these flickers of conscience, but in Pearson's case, they became a full-blown crisis of faith. Under the pressure, the content of his faith changed, and when he returned to his church, he brought a different message. Now he said the Bible was "not necessarily infallible or inerrant", that there was no eternal damnation, and that Jesus' sacrifice had redeemed all of humanity - Christians, atheists and everyone else - whether they believed in him or not.
Pearson's new gospel received a frosty reception. Higher Dimensions' congregation dwindled from 5,000 to just 200. The church's other pastors resigned in protest. Oral Roberts University removed him from its board of regents, and influential evangelicals across the country denounced him. Pearson became persona non grata with his own friends and colleagues; to them, he says, it's "like I died". Even his parishioners - the ones who stayed - describe being accosted on the street or in the supermarket by friends or neighbors demanding to know why they were still attending a church that teaches such heresy.
Today Pearson is a minister in the United Church of Christ, using the rhythms and cadence of Pentecostalism to preach a new message of tolerance and unity. His preaching attracts a new crowd - more liberal, more gay-friendly - and slowly, attendance has begun to inch upward again.
Pearson's story shows that the evangelical church, in its essence, is based on fear of Hell and not love of God. 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.
More than anything else, evangelicals are united and motivated by belief in Hell. Eternal torment lies at the heart of their faith; it defines their self-image and forms the lens through which they view the world. And there's a reason for that: in their theology, God's love is indiscriminate, but God's salvation is highly selective. Their belief that they are saved and most people are not gives them a sense of privilege, of sanctification - a feeling that they possess something rare and precious. Taking Hell out of the equation directly threatens this belief - it threatens to make them no different from anyone else - which explains why the denunciations of Pearson by his fellow evangelicals were so swift and so vehement.
But despite its superficial advantage in motivating the flock, belief in hellfire more than loses out due to its horrendously evil implications. Carlton Pearson has glimpsed a better way - rejecting the moral absurdity of a God who permits innocent humans to suffer indescribably, then casts them into eternal damnation. He ought to take the next step and ask himself: why believe in a God that permits people, like those people in Rwanda, to suffer so terribly even during this life?
The answer that humans do this to themselves is too facile. Even if that is true, it would not excuse a deity with the power to help from the moral obligation of aiding the innocent. Pearson has already had the strength of conscience and the basic honesty to reject so many of the old, inadequate apologetics. Now he has the opportunity to go just a bit farther, to leave behind just a few more unnecessary beliefs, and follow many of his former colleagues into a better place: a garden of free thought and clear air, where all the supernaturalisms that plague us are finally left behind.
Open Thread: Battle Royale Edition
This comment was left on a different post by a visitor calling himself Ty:
I cannot imagine how you could believe that there is no savior in this world. I am 14, and strongly believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross for the sins of the whole world. I'm almost offended that you could think there is no God. If you really believe that you have evidence that Christ is not the Savior of the world, I'd like to hear your claims. No offense to you or any other atheist, but I believe that they would be irrelevant compared to the strong evidence of every prophesy that Jesus fulfilled perfectly. Please submit some feedback.
He indicated to me in e-mail that he was willing to return and give fair consideration to any responses offered to this question. We'll see how that works out. Readers, have at it!
Season's Warning: The Bowery Mission
The other day, I got this piece of mail soliciting donations for a "Thanksgiving meal ticket" for New York City's homeless, from an organization calling itself the Bowery Mission:
I skimmed the letter, which looked like a run-of-the-mill charity solicitation. (I normally give to America's Second Harvest for this sort of thing.) I was about to throw it away when a thought occurred to me: The name "The Bowery Mission" sounds distinctly religious, but I hadn't noticed anything in the letter to indicate that this was anything other than a secular organization.
I went back and read more closely, and this time I found it, buried in small print on the back of the donation form:
We are committed to:
• Using your contributions faithfully and wisely, in accordance with our mission to minister in New York City to men, women and children caught in cycles of poverty, hopelessness and dependencies of many kinds, and to see their lives transformed to hope, joy, lasting productivity and eternal life through the power of Jesus.
...Our meals are the primary reason many people come to The Bowery Mission. Once they're here, we introduce them to the full services of our Mission and to the power of God to change lives.
From researching this group on their website, I found that they are and have always been a religious organization - one that, in their own words, "strive[s] to achieve a balance between preaching the need for personal salvation and translating faith into action via the social Gospel". But, aside from that easily overlooked small-print disclaimer, there is nothing in their letter that says this.
It would be eminently possible for a non-Christian to read this letter and decide to donate under the mistaken assumption that this is a secular charity - and this, I suspect, is precisely what the Bowery Mission intends. By avoiding upfront disclosure of their religious intent, they're more likely to receive donations from people who would not give if they knew their money would be used for Christian evangelizing. Their religious nature is made more apparent on their website, but even there it is far from prominent.
To be clear, I don't object to religious groups providing charity for the needy. I don't even object to those groups engaging in proselytism as part of the bargain, so long as their funding comes only from private sources. What I do object to is misleading solicitation that phrases a group's mission in secular terms, when in fact sectarian preaching and evangelism are part and parcel of that mission. When I donate to charity, I want 100% of my donation to be spent on providing aid to those who need it. I don't want any of that money to be spent on promoting religious ideologies that are untrue and that accomplish nothing toward the goal at hand.
If any other atheists are solicited this holiday season by the Bowery Mission, beware! Your gift may not be put towards the ends you expect. There are many worthwhile secular charities, ones that simply seek to aid human beings in need without spreading false and divisive religious ideologies. We should seek to aid them instead.
Is Evangelicalism On the Wane?
Is the power of the religious right declining in America? Several lines of evidence would seem to indicate so.
Heading into the 2008 election, the evangelical movement is fragmented and leaderless, lacking a clear sense of enthusiasm or a preferred candidate to rally behind. Several important figures, including Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy, have recently died. Atheists and nonbelievers are growing in influence. And the religious right's public brand is badly damaged, viewed as hypocritical and overly judgmental by large majorities of non-Christians.
For me, one of the most delicious signs of the religious right's waning power came recently, when James Dobson announced that he might hold his nose and endorse John McCain for president after all, after earlier declaring he would not vote for McCain under any circumstance. It's no surprise that he's ultimately fallen in line behind the Republican nominee, but I think his about-face on this issue will reinforce the message that Republican politicians can disregard Christian fundamentalists' desires, because they will vote for them anyway.
Unlike liberal and progressive political movements, the religious right is not capable of spontaneous bottom-up organization. By design, they are a movement that follows a leader and receives their marching orders from above. In the absence of any such person this year, they've become rudderless and disorganized. Also, prominent evangelicals who recognize how their faith has been coopted for political causes are beginning to push back with declarations like the Evangelical Manifesto, encouraging believers to focus their efforts on issues other than gay rights and abortion. This is a welcome development, though it should be noted that they do not disclaim the "standard" irrational religious positions on those issues.
The influence of religious groups has always waxed and waned in the United States, and it's safe to say that it's currently at a low point. If we who support secularism and reason take advantage of this to build a coalition that unites the Americans they have driven away from their side, we can ensure that their political fragmentation will continue for some time to come.
Nevertheless, it would be foolish to count the religious right out completely. They still command millions of members who can be driven into a frenzy if they have the right cause or leader to unite behind. They are down, but not defeated. And unfortunately, even though their influence is receding, they've left behind a "high-water mark" - an assumed standard level of religiosity in politics - which is likely to persist for a while.
Even as America as a whole becomes less religious, it seems that the political arena is becoming more religious. It was barely a century ago that a famous freethinker like Robert Ingersoll was a sought-after campaign trail figure and friend to presidents. Such a thing would be unthinkable today. So yes, the religious right is on the wane - but we have a long way to go to take back the ground they gained during their years of influence.
Vignette from the New York Subway
Presented without further comment:
Last night, when I got on the subway, I noticed an older, balding white man wearing a white T-shirt. The front of his shirt read, in multicolored block letters, "I'm so happy I'm saved," and the back read, over a backdrop of flames, "I won't have to spend eternity in the lake of fire. P.S.: There won't be a drink of water there!"
As the train pulled away from the station, a young black man entered the car. He announced that he was down on his luck, was trying to collect money for food, and would rather get it by begging than by robbing or mugging. He said he would sing for us in exchange for donations, and launched into an a cappella rendition of "Lean on Me".
Mr. Evangelical, who was standing right next to the young man, responded by hunching over, grimacing, and sticking his fingers in his ears.
A Letter to Jack Chick
Dear Mr. Chick,
You probably don't know me, but I'm writing to send you my thanks. I used to be a hardcore, evil, godless atheist, but after reading some of your wonderful Christian fundamentalist cartoon tracts, I've realized just how wrong I've been. Now I know that there is a God who loves me and who died for my sins, and that his name is Jesus Christ. I also now understand that playing Dungeons & Dragons too much will lead to you being initiated into a witches' coven and taught how to cast real spells; that Roman Catholicism is a Satanic cult and keeps its followers in line with demonic Egyptian death cookies; and that Jesus is the one who holds the protons together in atomic nuclei. (I always knew those godless physicists were just making it up when they talked about so-called "gluons"!)
Thanks to you, I'm ready to accept Jesus Christ's free gift of salvation and be washed clean by his precious blood. However, I can't do that just yet. There's one other thing I have to do first, but I'm having a problem. I thought I'd write to you in the hopes that you'd offer me some advice. Please allow me to explain.
One of your tracts which made the greatest impression on me was the one titled "The Contract". In this tract, an impoverished farmer makes a deal with the Devil to sell his soul in exchange for the money he needs to keep his farm. He receives the money, as promised, and uses it to do just that. Years later, he has a last-minute conversion to Christianity on his deathbed and goes to Heaven anyway.
I think this is a fantastic idea! Forget all those phony get-rich-quick schemes - here's one that really works. All I have to do is sign a contract with Satan, promising him my eternal soul in exchange for enormous worldly wealth and power, and then repent and turn to Jesus. That way, I can break the contract, get to enjoy eternal bliss when I die, and still get to keep all the cool stuff in the meantime! There's no downside! And I have you to thank for the inspiration. (That guy who told everyone not to "lay up treasures for yourselves upon the earth" was a real sucker! He went about this whole Christian thing all wrong. I guess he just wasn't as good at seeing these opportunities as us.)
Anyway, that's my foolproof plan - but it's hit just one snag. Namely, I can't get the Devil to show up and offer me the contract. I've tried everything I can think of to draw his attention - stamping my foot in public and audibly muttering, "I'd sell my soul for a billion dollars!"; listening to rock-and-roll music; reading demonic books like Harry Potter and The Origin of Species - but so far, I've had no luck.
Mr. Chick, I'm sure I'm not the first person to have this idea. I bet a great Christian evangelist like yourself has already thought of it - heck, you wrote the tract! I'm thinking you must know how to get the Devil's attention, and I bet you've already tricked him into giving you all kinds of free stuff. (Don't worry, I won't horn in your racket. I know the whole international, multimillion-dollar comic strip ministry was your idea. I'll ask him for something else!) Can you give me any tips? Pointers? What am I doing wrong?
If you get this letter, please rush your reply. As you can imagine, time is critical here - if I sign the Devil's contract but then die before accepting Jesus as my personal savior, I'll be eternally damned, and I don't want that. But I also don't want to get saved before getting my hands on all the worldly goods Satan can give me. The way I see it, Satan is God's enemy and I'd be cheating him out of all that stuff, so it has to be okay. I know I can't take it all with me, but that doesn't mean I can't enjoy it while I'm here, right?
Thanks in advance for your anticipated assistance.