The Ingratitude of American Theocrats

When America's founders ratified the Constitution, they created something that arguably had never existed in the world before: a republic where freedom of religion was explicitly enshrined in the charter, where toleration wasn't just the whim of a benevolent ruler but the immutable law of the land. As George Washington wrote in his famous letter to the Jewish congregation of Newport:

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

This was a radical break with history. At the time America was founded, all the great powers of Europe had state-supported churches and monarchs who claimed to rule by divine right, and religious wars and persecution were the order of the day: Catholics persecuting Protestants, Protestants persecuting Catholics, and both Catholics and Protestants persecuting those within their own sects who strayed from established dogma. In fact, the Spanish Inquisition was still executing heretics at the time of Thomas Jefferson's presidency.

In Great Britain during the Elizabethan era, the houses of prominent Roman Catholic families were known for having secret rooms, called "priest holes" (see also), where Catholic priests could be hidden away at a moment's notice when inquisitors came calling. Can you imagine what living in that society must have been like? Can you imagine living in a country where your freedom of belief hung by a thread, where the whim of a king made the difference between being grudgingly tolerated and an enemy of the state, and where literally at any moment you might have to abandon everything and go into hiding for your life - and that this happened so often that people planned for it?

Although America has seen (and practiced) its share of religious persecution, we've never had horrors like these. Instead, our founding document offered all comers a wonderful bargain: the freedom to live in peace, practice your beliefs as you see fit, even preach them to others. And in return we asked only, as President Washington said, that believers of all kinds be good citizens and obey the law of the land. We modern Americans have gotten used to this freedom, but that shouldn't blind us to how truly unprecedented it was, nor how liberal and generous it is to theists of every denomination.

But for members of the modern Christian right, it isn't enough. It's not enough for them that they have the right to practice their beliefs as they see fit, free of government interference. It's not enough for them that they have the unlimited freedom to fundraise, pray and preach as much as they like, in whatever media outlets they choose to publish. It's not even enough for them that they can stud the landscape with churches and staff and maintain them tax-free.

No, these dominionist believers want more than freedom: they want a special, privileged place in the laws of our country. They want the government to obey them, to issue official proclamations reminding everyone of their superiority, and to underwrite their evangelism with tax money from nonbelievers. They want their dogmas and only their dogmas to be taught in public school science classes, enshrined on courthouse lawns, and used as the basis to decide who should be allowed to marry, divorce, be born and die. In short, they want to be what our founders specifically sought to prevent: a state-established church, an arm of the government, with special rights and privileges granted to members and nonbelievers relegated to second-class citizens.

What selfishness! What ingratitude! All American believers, Christian or not, were given a priceless gift by the founders, and these ones throw it on the ground and spit on it. They don't want to be one religion among many; they want special privileges and special recognition. They think that freedom is worthless if it's granted to people they dislike - like a spoiled child who wants a toy because no one in his class has it, and then throws a temper tantrum when other kids get them because he's not the only one anymore. It's telling that these fundamentalists apparently can't just practice their religion on their own - they need constant hand-holding and head-patting from the government to stroke their egos and reassure them that they're better and specialer than everyone else. It's a clear sign of insecurity.

Benjamin Franklin had their number over two hundred years ago:

When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil power, 'tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.

Think of this the next time some obnoxious theocrat is on the news, arguing that it's unfair to him if his sect doesn't get special rights. These people want us to think of them as proud, pious defenders of America's Christian heritage (a claim which is, needless to say, utterly false). Instead, we should think of them as spoiled and petulant children, ungratefully rejecting the pledges of liberty that our founding generation purchased in blood, all because they want to be treated as if they were better than everyone else. Keep that image in your head, and it may help you put the theocrats' demands in their proper context.

August 26, 2010, 5:50 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink21 comments
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Christianist Professor Calls for Religious McCarthyism

Although I've learned not to expect much from the right-leaning Supreme Court, I've been pleasantly surprised by some of their recent decisions. First was Holy See v. John Doe, in which the court upheld a ruling that the Vatican isn't immune from lawsuits over its protection of pedophiles. The second was Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, in which a Christian student group sued a California law school to demand - what else? - the legal right to discriminate against gays.

The law school has a policy that all official student groups must accept all comers and may not turn anyone away on grounds of race, gender, or sexual orientation. The Christian group claimed that they should be able to exclude gays and still receive all the benefits granted to officially recognized student groups: university funding, the use of university facilities for meetings, and the right to use the university's newsletter for their communications. Fortunately, the Supreme Court disagreed:

The court held that the all-comers condition on access to a limited public forum was both reasonable and viewpoint neutral, and therefore did not violate CLS's right to free speech. Nor, in the court's view, did Hastings impermissibly impair CLS's right to expressive association: Hastings did not order CLS to admit any student, nor did the school proscribe any speech; Hastings merely placed conditions on the use of school facilities and funds.

This decision was both simple and reasonable, and is the obvious consequence of state and federal laws forbidding the government to cooperate in discrimination. Since the activity fee that funds student groups is mandatory, Hastings' policy ensures that no student is "forced to fund a group that would reject her as a member". As the court points out, other groups such as fraternities and sororities don't have official school recognition, yet they continue to thrive, and CLS is also still in existence and still holding its own events.

Departing Justice John Paul Stevens summed up the issue at hand in his concurrence, in a praiseworthy reminder that religiously inspired bigotry is no different than any other kind of bigotry:

Other groups may exclude or mistreat Jews, blacks, and women — or those who do not share their contempt for Jews, blacks, and women. A free society must tolerate such groups. It need not subsidize them, give them its official imprimatur, or grant them equal access to law school facilities.

All well and good, and I look forward to this decision being applied across the country. (Yes, I'm perfectly happy to see it apply to atheist groups as well.) But then I got a news alert directing me to this column, by Mike Adams on the ultra-right-wing site Townhall. As you'd expect, he's furious that the government won't cooperate in spreading his prejudice, and he's threatening to do something about it:

...when I get back to the secular university in August, I plan to round up the students I know who are most hostile to atheism. Then I'm going to get them to help me find atheist-haters willing to join atheist student groups across the South. I plan to use my young fundamentalist Christian warriors to undermine the mission of every group that disagrees with me on the existence of God.

That means an invading group can turn a smaller, weaker group into second class citizens on campus. That's what I intend to do to those groups who do not believe in God.

I do not seek robust debate. I seek power over the godless heathen dissident.

Now obviously, this is just a petulant tantrum. I don't expect Adams to actually attempt this idiotic plan, but even if he tried, it would be easy to thwart him. The court's decision pointed out that student groups could still, for example, expel members who didn't pay dues, or restrict officer positions to those who had been members for a year or more. If his "young Christian warriors" wanted to disrupt an atheist club, they'd have to sit and wait for a year, paying to promote atheism the whole time, before they'd get their chance. I doubt many Christians would be willing to do that. Or an atheist law students' club could just forgo official recognition, exactly as the court emphasized that they could, and restrict their membership to professing nonbelievers.

What concerns me more is that Mike Adams isn't just some random wingnut. According to his biography, he's a criminology professor at UNC-Wilmington.

It's one thing for professors to express political opinions. Liberal or conservative, they have the same free-speech rights as anyone else. It's something else altogether for Adams, a college professor, to proclaim that he seeks "power" over students on his own campus who disagree with him, that he "can't stand" them, that he wants to "undermine" and "destroy" their associations, and that his goal is to reduce them to "second-class citizens". It's chilling and inappropriate in the extreme for any person to make such statements about people over whom he has legitimate authority. If I were an atheist student, after reading this, I wouldn't be confident of fair treatment in Adams' class. (Just imagine the response from the right wing if an atheist professor wrote a column saying that he can't stand Christian students, wants to treat them as second-class citizens, and plans to disrupt and destroy their church meetings.)

I plan to write to UNC-Wilmington to bring this column to their attention and to ask if they sanction these kinds of statements from their professors about their own students. Here's contact info for the dean of Adams' school. Anyone else want to join me in writing a polite letter?

July 8, 2010, 5:51 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink48 comments
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An Unserious Response to the Theist's Guide

I've received another response to my essay on Ebon Musings, "The Theist's Guide to Converting Atheists", which challenges theists to explain what they would accept as proof that their religious beliefs were mistaken. For the record, I'll point out that this essay has been publicly available since June 2001, almost nine years, and in that time - counting the response just received - I've gotten a total of three replies.

What's ironic is that this latest response underscores, rather than contradicts, the point I originally made in my essay which explains why I posed this challenge:

Many theists, by their own admission, structure their beliefs so that no evidence could possibly disprove them. In short, they are closed-minded, and have been taught to be closed-minded.

This is a perfect description of the latest response. Its author, though he puts on a pretense of open-mindedness, has offered terms that are purposefully designed to be impossible to fulfill. His response is therefore made in bad faith and is not a serious answer to my challenge, but I'll analyze it anyway, the better to show how the theist mindset works.

Here is how he begins:

To convince me that God doesn't exist, please come up with an alternate explanation for the existence of every single physical particle in the universe. Everything - down to the minutest sub-atomic particle known or surmised presently, to everything yet to be discovered in the future - must be accounted for up-front each with its own individual explanation. Since we can not assume that an agent that has one address, so to speak, like a Supreme Being, will organize and order our material universe, so any convincing explanation of existence must, out of necessity, account for each individual particle in the universe separately and distinctly, each one by itself.

The observable universe has on the order of 1080 - that is, 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 - subatomic particles. For each one of these, this person demands an individual, separate and distinct explanation. Obviously, this task could not be accomplished in the lifetime of a human, or, for that matter, in the lifetime of the universe. And even if we somehow had the resources to attempt this, most of the explanations this person demands would require historical facts that are irretrievably lost to us. Atoms don't accumulate evidence about their past history; how in principle could you ever find out that iron atom #7,128,462,971,394 originated in the supernova of this star and not that star?

My respondent has numerous other demands, most of which are equally unreasonable, but I won't belabor the point. His entire lengthy essay was a waste of his time to write; it's just a roundabout way of saying, "Nothing could ever change my mind about the existence of God." Why he didn't just say that, I don't know - unless it makes him feel better, soothes his cognitive dissonance, to be able to tell himself that he's offered an "answer" to my challenge and therefore isn't closed-minded. His essay suggests as much:

Now Mr. Atheist has noted that some people have rigged the conditions under which they would give up religion to be so impossible that, of course, their beliefs could not be touched. Now I'm not into those kinds of games.

Needless to say, I don't intend to permit him that false comfort, which is why I'm calling his sophistry what it is. His "challenge" is designed to be impossible, and he's well aware of this. He's dishonestly playing the very same kind of game he claims to deride. Too bad for him that I don't intend to indulge him in it.

It's no surprise, also, that his ludicrous standard of proof for atheism is not one he ever applies to his own beliefs. Does he require an individual, separate and distinct explanation of how and why God manufactured every proton, electron, photon, quark and graviton in the cosmos? Of course not. For him, as for most believers, "Goddidit" is a perfectly sufficient explanation that requires no further detail or supporting evidence. Of course, when dealing with scientists, they demand meticulous proof, every step checked and triple-checked, every single bit of relevant data unearthed and supplied, every possible alternative hypothesis conclusively disproven with mathematical certainty. If they applied anything near this level of scrutiny and hyperskepticism to their own faith, they'd long since have become atheists!

My correspondent also thinks he has something to offer that would satisfy one entry on my list of convincing proofs for theism. I'll consider his evidence in a followup post to appear shortly.

April 28, 2010, 8:51 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink27 comments
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Holding the Pope to Account

Every time I think we've seen the worst of what the Roman Catholic church and this pope are capable of, they come up with a way to sink lower still. Back in January, when Benedict reinstated a misogynist, Holocaust-denying bishop, I could never have imagined that that would be the least offensive and disgusting thing they'd have done this year - yet it seems like that may very well be the case.

The newest evidence of this comes via this story from the AP. I previously detailed a case where the current pope, back when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, assigned a known child molester to therapy and then washed his hands of the matter; and another case where Ratzinger ignored urgent letters from an archbishop requesting an ecclesiastical trial for a priest known to have molested as many as 200 deaf boys. But this story is the most direct evidence yet of Ratzinger's culpable neglect and stonewalling over cases of child rape.

Back in 1981, the diocese of Oakland wrote to Ratzinger, who was then head of the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, urging him to begin proceedings to defrock Rev. Stephen Kiesle, another confessed priestly pedophile. Kiesle had previously pleaded no contest to tying up and molesting two children in a church rectory, and the diocese wrote to Rome asking that he be defrocked (in fact, Kiesle himself requested to be defrocked). Ratzinger ignored multiple letters for four years. Finally, in 1985, he wrote back - but said that the case needed still more time, and that proceedings had to be slow and deliberate in order to safeguard "the good of the universal church" (!)

This court, although it regards the arguments presented in favor of removal in this case to be of grave significance, nevertheless deems it necessary to consider the good of the Universal Church together with that of the petitioner, and it is also unable to make light of the detriment that granting the dispensation can provoke with the community of Christ's faithful, particularly regarding the young age of the petitioner. (source)

The young age of the petitioner - that is, the pedophile priest! Incredibly, Ratzinger was more concerned about the harm defrocking a child molester would do to the Church's public image than he was about the harm that the molester had already done and might still do to vulnerable children. As multiple commenters have pointed out, the young age of the molester (he was 38 at the time) might well have been a factor also. Ratzinger must be aware of the aging and dwindling priesthood and the paucity of new recruits; it's likely that he wanted to hang on to every ordained man as long as possible, regardless of the price.

Andrew Sullivan, himself a conservative Catholic, calls this outrageous letter "the third strike" for this pope:

It is a document designed to prevent dismissing a priest as young as 38. Perhaps the fast-aging priesthood was a concern and dismissing such a young priest was to be avoided. But it's clear that the age of the priest is of far more importance to Ratzinger than the age of the minors he raped. All the sympathy and concern is with the rapist, not the raped. This is a document about protecting the powerful even when they rape the powerless.

So far, the typical Vatican apologist defense has been to claim that Ratzinger was an ivory-tower type, so concerned with ponderous matters of theology that he couldn't stoop to deal with such mundane trivia as a man in his employ raping and molesting children. But in 2006, when an archbishop openly defied the Vatican's rule on celibacy by ordaining married men as priests, Pope Benedict excommunicated him six days later. Again, this is the same man who took four years even to respond to a letter pleading with him to do something about an active pedophile.

All of this has led to this announcement, by a British human-rights lawyer seeking to have the Pope put on trial for crimes against humanity the next time he visits the U.K. It's a good idea, although I'm not yet convinced that the Pope's culpability rises to the level of the criminal. Despicable as they were, it seems that his sins were of omission rather than commission - failing to do anything about pedophiles preying on children, rather than actively assisting them in doing so - though given the steady trickle of new details, I may have to retract that statement in the near future. And in any case, I'm sure the U.K. government would do everything in its power to preempt any criminal investigation (conservative Catholics are still an influential voting bloc). However, I think a civil lawsuit is a very real possibility and a legal avenue that should be explored.

Lastly, and in case there was any doubt in your mind remaining about the Catholic church's intentions, there's this story from Connecticut. The state legislature has proposed a bill that would lift the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse cases, and the bishops ordered a letter to be read during Mass urging their parishioners to lobby against it. This shows, more clearly than anything else possibly could, that the Catholic church is still concerned first and foremost with protecting itself, rather than seeing that justice is done. If they truly wanted to be sure that no molesters were left in their ranks, they'd welcome this bill - and the fact that they oppose it can only mean that they know of more cases of molestation that haven't yet come to light.

But if I had to pick one quote to sum up the depths of wickedness and hypocrisy displayed by this church, it'd be this one from the columnist Libby Purves, a former Catholic turned deist. She beautifully turns their own words against them by quoting the Penny Catechism she learned as a child:

Numbers 328 and 329 refer, making it clear that we are "answerable for the sins of others" when we share the guilt "by counsel, command, consent, provocation, by concealment, by silence..."

Forget the lordly authoritarianism which speaks of the "good of the Universal Church": that Church itself plainly states that concealing crime by silence is wrong, and that it is worse still to counsel and command others to commit the same sin of silence and concealment. Yet this crime, this sin, was being regularly urged on children, parents and parishioners by men in authority: the solemn clerical authority which purports to draw its privilege direct from the eternal Truth and to see into the depths of the heart. It is an all-male authority, too, in which the greenest young priest outranks an experienced nun or devout mother. It has been the perfect screen for wickedness.

April 15, 2010, 8:16 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink25 comments
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CAP Alert Reviews IV

Recently, while I was looking over my list of especially ridiculous items culled from the CAP Alert site, I noticed an interesting trend. Namely, many elements of movies which the CAP reviewer condemns can also be found in the Bible. Consider the following examples:

The 13th Warrior: "'Your fate is fixed'"

Romans 9:21: "Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?" (In the middle of a long argument for predestination.)

Elektra: "'You did what you had to do' to excuse lying"

Rahab the harlot is rewarded for lying in Joshua 2:4 to protect the Israelite messengers.

King Arthur: "order to kill every man, woman, child in path"

Deuteronomy 7:2: "And when the Lord thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them."

Pearl Harbor: "life-death decision-making"

Many examples throughout the Bible, most notably Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Saved!: "belittlement of the Jewish people"

Titus 1:10-11: "For there are many unruly and vain talkers and deceivers, specially they of the circumcision: whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole houses, teaching things which they ought not, for filthy lucre's sake."

Shakespeare in Love: "talk of selling daughter for sex"

Exodus 21:7-8: "And if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do. If she please not her master, who hath betrothed her to himself, then shall he let her be redeemed."

Shakespeare in Love: "sadness due to death of an associate"

According to the Bible, Jesus wept at the grave of Lazarus (John 11:35).

War of the Worlds: "blaming disaster on God"

A frequent theme in the Book of Job.

X2: "sacrificial suicide to save others"

John 15:13: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."

Also, I noted another example in my first post on CAP, where he slammed a movie for teaching the ethic "An eye for an eye" - which comes from the Book of Exodus.

I confess, I have no idea what the CAP reviewer was thinking with these comments. Granted, in some cases (like The Matrix: "prophesying", "resurrection from the dead"), it's because he believes that God has a monopoly on those particular sorts of magic and no one else is allowed to do them. Yet it's undeniable that many of the movies he's criticized simply present behaviors which can also be found in the Bible, often in rules presented as direct from the hand of God, or in the lives of people who are praised as being just and righteous. Why does he condemn these biblical principles when they appear in popular culture? Is it possible that so fervent a Christian is ignorant of the content of the Bible, so that he doesn't see the parallels?

All this leads up to an obvious point: Given the CAP reviewer's strong rejection of violence, hatred and sexuality, and since he's claimed in the past that it's not an excuse if the movie this material is in teaches a positive message, how would his own faith fare if he consistently applied his own standards to it? Wouldn't these same principles force him to conclude that the Bible is a dangerous and corrupt book that should not be taught to children?

Evidently, this criticism comes up a lot, since the CAP site has a page devoted to it: Why Don't You CAP the Bible? His main argument is that the Bible does not graphically depict or encourage these acts the way that popular culture does:

What about descriptions of sinful behaviors in any sort of graphic detail? The Bible speaks in understatement, e.g., "He took her" or "sliced off his ear." Quite a bit of difference in perspective indeed.

...As another example for comparison regarding the degree of influence of subject matter in the Bible versus in movies, reading "was killed by" is a l-o-t different than watching and hearing someone thrust a 14" knife into a man's body, repeatedly, slowly at first, seeing the steel of the blade disappear, appearing more stained with each withdrawal as blood spews, splatters and pools, the body twitching with each new thrust until it twitches no more then pumping eight rounds of .45 bullets into the body with steely coldness to make viciously and brutally certain the victim is dead.

This is a clever argument, but unfortunately for CAP, it's flat-out wrong. Reading about violent acts in scripture, even when described in the terse quality of the Bible, does make people more aggressive in exactly the way he fears that movies and media do.

This was demonstrated earlier this year by a study on religious violence by Brad Bushman of the University of Michigan. After reading a violent passage from the Old Testament, study participants were given the chance to blast other students with loud noise. Both religious and secular students (although the religious more so) were more aggressive in this game after exposure to the violent scripture.

This is a clear example of the priming effect in action, and shows that the Bible has no magical exemption from this basic principle of psychology. It seems, then, that if the CAP reviewer really wants to shelter children from exposure to violence and hate, he should begin not at the movies, but with the bloody, divisive scriptures that are, with the best of intentions, so often inculcated in the young.

Other posts in this series:

October 25, 2007, 6:27 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink13 comments
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Armor of God

"Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil... Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; and your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; above all, taking the shield of faith..."

—Ephesians 6:11-16

Among the fundamentalist Christian set, it's a common tenet that faith in Jesus offers the believer some sort of literal supernatural protection against those who would do them harm. The passage quoted above, which goes on in this tedious analogizing vein for some time, has probably been the greatest single inspiration for that belief (as well as being the inspiration for Christian fundamentalist children's pajamas - seldom has Richard Dawkins' point that religious brainwashing of the young is the mental equivalent of child abuse seemed so apt).

While the supernatural efficacy of Christian belief is still a dogma awaiting its first piece of supporting evidence, the "armor of God" in a different sense is a very real phenomenon. I refer to the way in which many religious believers accused of wrongdoing immediately seek to hide behind their faith, claiming that God is on their side and that their accusers are wicked, godless people seeking to persecute the faithful with false accusations. In my experience, this claim is one of the last refuges of a scoundrel, and usually a reliable indicator that the accused's guilt is about to become evident to all.

The latest high-and-mighty religious authority trying to hammer God into a shield is Richard Roberts, son of televangelist Oral Roberts and president of the university his father founded and named after himself. Three former professors recently filed a lawsuit against Oral Roberts University, accusing the Robertses of illegal political activity and misappropriation of college resources for personal benefit. Some of the more salacious details of the suit include:

• A longtime maintenance employee was fired so that an underage male friend of Mrs. Roberts could have his position.

• Mrs. Roberts - who is a member of the board of regents and is referred to as ORU's "first lady" on the university's Web site - frequently had cell-phone bills of more than $800 per month, with hundreds of text messages sent between 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. to "underage males who had been provided phones at university expense."

• The university jet was used to take one daughter and several friends on a senior trip to Orlando, Fla., and the Bahamas. The $29,411 trip was billed to the ministry as an "evangelistic function of the president."

• Mrs. Roberts spent more than $39,000 at one Chico's clothing store alone in less than a year, and had other accounts in Texas and California. She also repeatedly said, "As long as I wear it once on TV, we can charge it off." The document cites inconsistencies in clothing purchases and actual usage on TV.

• Mrs. Roberts was given a white Lexus SUV and a red Mercedes convertible by ministry donors.

• University and ministry employees are regularly summoned to the Roberts' home to do the daughters' homework.

• The university and ministry maintain a stable of horses for exclusive use by the Roberts' children.

• The Roberts' home has been remodeled 11 times in the past 14 years.

(These details and the tip for the story go to Pam's House Blend. Also, don't miss Greta Christina, who has by far the best take on this I've seen.)

These lurid details have been dissected at length elsewhere, so I won't focus on them. Instead, I want to comment on Richard Roberts' reaction to the suit:

At a chapel service this week on the 5,300-student campus known for its 60-foot-tall bronze sculpture of praying hands, Roberts said God told him: "We live in a litigious society. Anyone can get mad and file a lawsuit against another person whether they have a legitimate case or not. This lawsuit... is about intimidation, blackmail and extortion."

Got that straight? The claim that this lawsuit "is about intimidation, blackmail and extortion" isn't Richard Roberts' opinion. It's God's opinion. And we can be quite certain of that, because the person telling us so is God's faithful and trustworthy spokesman, Richard Roberts.

Like Thomas Weeks, who blamed the charges that he viciously beat his wife in a hotel parking lot on the machinations of Satan, Roberts is seemingly counting on this proclamation to rally community support - notwithstanding his obvious personal interest in the outcome of the case, and his strong incentive to claim that God told him this whether he actually received any such communication or not. (I'm betting on "not".) Roberts and Weeks are just the latest in a long line of religious leaders who sought to cynically invoke their faith for personal benefit, which in itself reinforces the atheist position that no belief, faith-based or not, should be held exempt from criticism.

Time and the courts will see how this lawsuit fares. (I wonder if God will end up telling Roberts to settle out of court. What's the Almighty's fee for legal advice, anyway?) But these accusations, if not yet proven, are certainly credible - both because of the abundant past evidence of corruption and hypocrisy among powerful religious authorities, and because they come with the type of highly specific detail that is usually supported by evidence. In particular, the claims of the non-profit ORU engaging in illegal partisan political activity is supported by what is apparently an e-mail sent out by school faculty urging students to volunteer for a school-backed candidate. And it does not help that Roberts' first instinct is to claim that God is on his side and is telling him that he is being persecuted. Such self-serving "revelations" may reassure the terminally credulous, but for the rest of us, they make the outcome seem even more like a foregone conclusion.

October 9, 2007, 4:45 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink12 comments
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The Thomas Weeks Affair

Since this seems to be a week for tearing down Christian icons, I have another fall from grace to report: Bishop Thomas Weeks, founder of the international Christian ministry Global Destiny, was released on bond last week after turning himself in to face charges of brutally beating his estranged wife Juanita Bynum - herself a nationally renowned Christian evangelist and best-selling gospel singer, and co-founder of that same ministry.

The police report of the incident states that, during a hostile confrontation in a hotel parking lot following a failed reconciliation, Weeks choked Bynum, pushed her to the ground, then started to kick her and stomp on her until he was physically pulled away from her by a hotel employee. The police report also states that he threatened her life. Though Bynum is recovering, her bruises were sufficiently serious for the police to bring charges of felony aggravated assault.

All this would be bad enough. But then, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Weeks took the pulpit at his own church to blame the Devil for the charges against him. Unfortunately, the article does not say clearly whether Weeks meant that Satan tempted him to commit assault, or whether Satan had false charges brought against him to discredit him. In either case, Weeks' congregation has apparently rallied behind him:

Member Maurice Adams, 26, of Atlanta said he was disappointed to hear the news but still considers Weeks his bishop.

"We all make mistakes. He deserves another opportunity," Adams said.

Note to this parishioner: Shouting at someone you love in a moment of anger, or saying something rude or hurtful, might be classed as a mistake. Choking someone, pushing them to the ground, and then kicking and stomping on them until physically dragged away - that is not a mistake. It is an act of viciousness and brutality that necessarily reveals the vicious and brutal nature of the person who does it. There are times when forgiveness and second chances are appropriate, but something like this is not one of them. An act of such violence deserves harsh punishment, especially since the evidence shows that, absent radical behavioral intervention, most abusers will go on to abuse again.

This story is an ignominious ending to a match that must have once seemed made in heaven. Bynum and Weeks were married in 2002 in a televised ceremony that reportedly featured 1,000 guests, an orchestra and a 7.76-carat diamond ring, no doubt made possible by the trusting contributions of parishioners. Despite this incident, the two have never divorced, although it was plain that they were experiencing marital strife after a sermon earlier this month in which Weeks stated that Bynum would no longer join him in preaching sermons at their church.

What this story shows is that, for all its claims to transform people's lives, Christianity often achieves nothing of the sort. It may inspire some positive change on occasion, as does any self-help program followed with sufficient dedication, but there is no magical power in it to change people's character for the better. The only potential for positive change in this or in any other religion or belief system is what the believer can bring about in themselves through their own, non-supernatural will and effort.

On the other hand, Christianity, especially in its born-again and evangelical forms, does offer a very convenient way for scoundrels and evildoers to hide their true motivations. All they have to do is proclaim that they have been washed clean by Jesus - a claim which many believers, taught to expect the supernatural efficacy of their beliefs, will unquestioningly accept. The wrongdoer instantly has people's good faith and trust restored without having to offer any solid evidence that they have changed their ways. (See Michael Vick, or any of the countless other convicts who've suddenly found Jesus at the jailhouse doors.) And this presumption of trust, coupled with the presumption that one should not question a servant of God, makes it very easy for the person to conceal whatever continued wrongdoing they may engage in. (See Ted Haggard.)

I hope at least some people who naively trusted in Thomas Weeks just because he was a minister have had that trust shaken today. Religious belief, however fervently professed, is absolutely no guarantee of whether a person is moral or can be trusted. Despite the many object lessons our society has received to that end, they all seem to be forgotten far too quickly. Hopefully, this one will stick at least a little longer, and inspire some skepticism toward the next charming con artist who claims to be trustworthy because he speaks in God's name.

August 28, 2007, 8:47 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink24 comments
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Mother Teresa's Loss of Faith

Time magazine this month has a rather amazing story about a decades-long crisis of faith in the life of Agnes Bojaxhiu, better known as Mother Teresa. A newly released biography, Come Be My Light, consists of numerous letters Teresa exchanged with her church superiors. These letters reveal that for the last fifty years of her life, she felt as if God had withdrawn his presence from her and would not respond to her prayers. Unable to feel any hint of God's existence - "neither in her heart or in the eucharist", according to Brian Kolodiejchuk, the book's editor - she lived in a permanent state of silent misery and despair. Some excerpts from Teresa's letters reveal just how tormented she was:

I call, I cling, I want — and there is no One to answer — no One on Whom I can cling — no, No One. — Alone ... Where is my Faith — even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness — My God — how painful is this unknown pain — I have no Faith — I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart — & make me suffer untold agony.

So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them — because of the blasphemy — If there be God — please forgive me — When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven — there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. — I am told God loves me — and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.

This crisis of faith began in 1946, the same year that she began her evangelistic work among the poor in Kolkata, and continued unabated, except for a few weeks in 1958, until her death in 1997. The church assigned a long series of priests and bishops to act as her confessors, trying to help her recover her faith, but all of them ultimately met with failure.

Despite her intense inner turmoil, Teresa always kept up a facade of cheerful piety in public, professing religious sentiments which she did not truly feel. Her letters reveal that this was a fully conscious act of deception. She called her smile "a mask", and wrote privately to a confidant about one public appearance: "I spoke as if my very heart was in love with God — tender, personal love... If you were [there], you would have said, 'What hypocrisy.'"

The inability to feel God's presence is a common element of deconversion stories, but as Teresa's letters show, it happens in people who remain believers as well. Of course, atheists should not be at all surprised by this, since we are well aware that there is no god there to feel. In the initial ecstasy of conversion, a new believer may convince themselves that they have felt God's presence, but after the exhilaration fades, the sense of presence often goes with it. If this can happen to a believer as famed as Mother Teresa, it undoubtedly happens to others as well. It's an open question just how many other theists may be going through similar emotional agony, struggling in vain to convince themselves that they feel the presence of God. Almost certainly, these struggles are severely underreported, because believers are loath to admit them - each one concealing their own torment because they are convinced they are the only one experiencing it, and thus contributing to the same misconception among all the others who are feeling the same thing.

Although her letters show she considered atheism on more than one occasion, Teresa never publicly admitted the truth about how she felt. (She asked the church to destroy her letters, but that request was not granted.) It seems that, like many believers, she became so locked into her religion that she never even considered leaving it to be a live option. Sadly, she is not the first and will not be the last person to put themselves through this unnecessary suffering by vainly clinging to false dogma. This is yet another of the ways in which unfounded faith ends up causing real pain and suffering to real people.

Teresa's inner suffering was not helped by the Catholic church. If anything, its masochistic, pain-glorifying teachings only exacerbated her problem, by encouraging her to stay and suffer rather than seek a different path where she might have found happiness. Some of Teresa's confessors told her that her darkness was "reparative" - in other words, a blessing granted by God that let her experience some of what Jesus felt while being crucified. As one advisor put it, "It was the redeeming experience of her life when she realized that the night of her heart was the special share she had in Jesus' passion."

Not only did these teachings prolong Teresa's suffering, they further demonstrate the unfalsifiable nature of religious belief. When God's presence is felt, that is evidence of God's existence; when God's presence is not felt, that is also considered evidence of God's existence. These beliefs are formulated to be perfectly circular, immune to logic.

August 27, 2007, 7:43 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink55 comments
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The Selective Wall

Last December, I wrote about a controversy in Albemarle County, Virginia, where right-wing Christians who sued for and won the right to distribute literature through the public schools' "backpack mail" program were shocked - shocked! - to find out that there were other religions which then wanted to use that program for the same thing. At the time, the example I cited was a local Unitarian church which invited students to a pagan-inspired celebration of the winter holidays.

Now there's a new wrinkle in this case. An even better group has stepped in and is distributing literature through the backpack mail program: Camp Quest, a summer camp explicitly aimed at children of atheist, agnostic and humanist parents. Of course, the conservative Christians who fought this case fully recognize that opening the school to one religious viewpoint means equal access must be given to all religious viewpoints, and they've stated that while they don't agree with the beliefs of Camp Quest, they're more than willing to allow atheists to distribute literature to children as well, and let families decide for themselves who is right.

Just kidding.

In reality, the religious groups who shrieked about persecution when they were denied access to public schools are now shrieking just as loudly that the schools are "promoting atheism" by giving atheists the same access to a public forum as everyone else. Rick Scarborough called it "outrageous" that teachers have to hand out material with which they might personally disagree (a concern, I note, that was entirely absent when Christians like Scarborough were trying to force their way into the school). Some of the teachers are deeply concerned that handing out such material might imply that the school is officially endorsing or establishing atheism. Some are going even farther by refusing to hand out the flyers that they personally do not agree with.

As AU's blog says so well:

If public schools allow private groups to use "backpack mail," they must prohibit teachers from deciding which messages are and are not worthy. It is absolutely unacceptable for public school teachers to decide that one religious belief is "offensive" and "outrageous" but others are not and then promote that perspective in their official capacity.

I could not agree more. Teachers who use their official power to promote ideas that agree with their personal beliefs, and shut out ideas that do not agree with their personal beliefs, should immediately be disciplined or fired. Such an attitude is incompatible with the expectations placed upon every civil servant by the U.S. Constitution.

Judging by the facts of this case, one could be forgiven for thinking that the religious right simply lacks whatever part of the brain it is that allows the rest of us to comprehend basic notions of fairness and equality. When they are not allowed to use the coercive power of government to push their faith, they raise a hue and cry of discrimination, claiming they are being shut out; but when that power is extended to all religious groups, they scream that the government is officially endorsing beliefs that they do not agree with. It seems that nothing would satisfy them except special, preferential treatment for their own beliefs while all others are banned and shut out - which, of course, is exactly what they want.

This is yet another aspect of the selective wall, which I've written about many times before. The selective wall is what leads believers to conclude that special treatment for their beliefs is inherently fair and reasonable, while the same treatment for any beliefs different from their own is a gross injustice and a blatant violation of the separation of church and state. Such people hold an attitude of arrogant, condescending entitlement, believing that they themselves have a special exemption from the rules everyone else must follow, and that any attempt to hold them to the same standard as everyone else is an offensive insult. Doubtless, it is the certainty that they know God's will and that everyone who disagrees is wrong that causes them to act in this way, which is just another illustration of the pernicious effects of faith.

May 31, 2007, 8:08 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink58 comments
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The Spiral of Sin and Salvation

Since his spectacular public disgrace last year, the once-powerful evangelical preacher Ted Haggard has not returned to New Life Church, the Colorado megachurch he founded. However, a few days after confessing that the allegations laid against him were true, he arranged to have a letter read to his former congregation in which he admitted his guilt and asked for their forgiveness:

Please forgive me. I am so embarrassed and ashamed. I caused this and I have no excuse. I am a sinner. I have fallen. I desperately need to be forgiven and healed.

Haggard's wife Gayle also wrote a letter to the flock:

"For those of you who have been concerned that my marriage was so perfect I could not possibly relate to the women who are facing great difficulties, know that this will never again be the case," she wrote. "My test has begun; watch me. I will try to prove myself faithful."

She said Haggard believed "with all his heart and soul" the lessons he taught New Life.

"He is now the visible and public evidence that every man needs a Savior," she wrote.

Some people call this a moving demonstration of Christian love and forgiveness in action. I call it something different, and a glimmering of why can be seen in Gayle Haggard's last sentence. Yes, Ted Haggard disgraced himself, and by extension the entire evangelical movement. Yes, he has produced yet another blotch on his faith that will no doubt be remembered for a long time along with the other glaring examples of hypocrisy among powerful Christians. Yes, his actions deeply hurt and saddened many people who followed him or looked up to him. And yet, in a strange but important way, he has done them a service. He has provided them with powerful validation of the entire evangelical worldview.

By imposing unrealistic, impossible-to-follow strictures on its followers, Christianity sets them up for failure. And when that failure inevitably happens, it produces guilt and shame among those followers, reinforcing the teaching that all human beings are incorrigible sinners and encouraging them to cling even harder to Christianity for salvation.

I don't mean that these strictures are impossible to follow in the Christian sense, that human beings are hopelessly wicked creatures unable to refrain from committing evil acts. Rather, Christianity does violence to human nature by teaching people to suppress basic human instincts and motivations, calling them sins that must be battled. (Consider Matthew's teaching that a moment of sexual desire is equivalent to adultery (5:28), and that a moment of anger or frustration puts one in danger of eternal damnation (5:22)). These instincts are part of what it means to be human, and if we act responsibly and maturely, they are healthy and harmless.

If, on the other hand, we try to deny human nature and suppress these instincts altogether, pressure builds up until they explode. This is what happened to Haggard, just as it happened to many other famous fundamentalist hypocrites. But instead of taking the right lesson from this, Christianity assumes the answer is to try even harder next time. As part of this, many Christian groups attempt to take away people's access to the information they need to make responsible decisions - abstinence-only sex education being a prime example - making the likelihood of a poor outcome even greater.

This is a very effective and insidious tactic. As I've written before, it's like convincing people that they are sick in order to sell them the cure. But in this case, the cure makes you feel even sicker and sets up a vicious cycle of dependency. Taught by Christianity that they are sinners in need of forgiveness, believers perpetually return to Christianity for the forgiveness they believe only it can give them. Believers can become "addicted to forgiveness". This is a very common theme in deconversion stories, where former Christians testify how their terror of damnation led them to repeatedly ask Jesus for salvation, out of fear that they hadn't done it right the last time or had committed some grave sin since then. Religious authorities who promise forgiveness for a price are the pushers in this scheme, and like Haggard, some of them use their own product. (The price need not be monetary - it often includes contributing to a religious leader's preferred political causes.) And over time, as with all drugs, the effectiveness of the forgiveness "drug" wanes, impelling believers to become even more rigid and dogmatic in their devotions to win the same feeling of relief.

Fortunately, there is a way out of this endless spiral of sin and salvation - a twelve-step plan of sorts. But it is not the twelve steps of religious organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous, whose first step is to believe that you are powerless over your own life and that only God can help you. That attitude is not a cure, but rather the very addiction we are seeking to solve.

The best treatment for this particular addiction is to go cold turkey, and that is exactly what atheism provides. In contradiction to the religious worldview that teaches its adherents to view their own natural instincts as sinful, atheism offers the freedom to accept humanity for what it is and guide your own life as you see fit. In place of constant pleas for forgiveness to an unseen dictator and his self-proclaimed earthly representatives, atheism opens the way to a rational, humanistic standard of morality, where our accountability and our responsibilities are to each other. After bearing the crushing burden of superstitious guilt, many ex-believers will testify to the relief it is to breathe the free air of reason and to live a life of fearlessly self-directed independence at last.

May 26, 2007, 9:55 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink29 comments
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