Crusading for the Crusades: How Revisionists Are Whitewashing a Bloodbath

crusades

As you may have noticed, the Crusades have become something of a sacred cow in the U.S. As President Obama discovered, anyone who dares point out how brutal they were is in danger of being branded as anti-Christian and anti-American.  In recent years, a spate of revisionist books have tried to paint the Crusades as a noble and just endeavor; one of the most egregious of these volumes, for instance, is The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Crusades (“politically incorrect” being a euphemism for ideologically tilted and/or historically inaccurate).

There are basically four flimsy defenses that the Crusades Crusaders offer for their pet cause:

Flimsy Defense # 1: It was a long time ago

Because a millennium has passed, some crusaders suggest, it’s no longer cricket to express horror and outrage — at the same time, however, they see no problem with reaching back into the past nearly half a millennium in order to find some grounds for defending the Crusades (which we’ll get to in a moment). The implication is that because the Crusades are so deeply buried in the vaults of history, Christian violence is too.

Wrong.

These folks are overlooking the Inquisition. They’re overlooking the witch trials. And they’re overlooking events in modern times as well. For example, violence between factions in Ireland (a centuries-old tradition carried over into recent years), though officially pegged as politically rooted, was in fact largely occasioned by differences in religion. This conflict gave rise, among other things, to The Shankill Butchers, a band of Protestant fanatics who abducted, tortured and murdered Catholics (as well as a few fellow Protestants who pissed them off).

More recently, there was the “ethnic cleansing” in the former Yugoslavia, which might be more accurately characterized as religious “cleansing”.

And we’re certainly not out of the woods now. You’ve surely heard a great deal about Muslim terrorists these days, but chances are you’ve heard much less about the more common and more menacing Christian terrorists. Violence isn’t exclusive to any one age or country or religion. And somebody once said something important about those who can’t remember the past.

Flimsy Defense # 2: Everyone else was doing it too

Because the Crusades occurred so far in the past, some people imagine that there is a magical boundary between Then and Now; and that once humanity crossed that line, it was suddenly transformed into a different biological order. Back then, they want to believe, people were just more violent in general, so it’s understandable that Christians would have been too (though at the same time, Christians were supposed to be morally superior to everyone else).

I was having a discussion along these lines a few years ago with a friend — a highly intelligent friend who knows more about history than I do — when I brought up what a bloodthirsty sleazeball Columbus was. To which he replied, “Well, can we really judge a Fifteenth-Century man by modern standards?”

Yes, absolutely, we can.

One reason we know so much about the misdeeds of Columbus and other Christian conquerors in the New World is that a contemporary priest, Bartolomé de Las Casas, recorded them with disgust. If he could feel compassion and respect for the Natives and revulsion over violence and exploitation, why couldn’t Columbus?

It isn’t human nature that has evolved. It’s the collective social order, to the point that most societies now frown on genocide, slavery and torture. On an individual level, though, some people still do it when they can get away with it. But just because some people do it is not, and has never been, ample cause for someone else to do it.

Flimsy Defense # 3: It was self-defense

This is the most popular of the flimsy defenses, the very heart and soul of Crusades revisionism. According to this tidy fairy tale, the Crusades were a just and holy undertaking, quite pleasing unto the will of God, because they were a defensive maneuver against those nasty Muslims who were picking on Christians. But this narrative is at best a gross oversimplification.

There were numerous crusades — the exact number is a matter of debate — over a period of a couple of centuries (some historians maintain they lasted as long as five centuries). Some were motivated by political and economic rather than, or in addition to, religious factors. Not all of these were directed toward Muslims; the Christians also targeted Jews, pagans and even their fellow Christians whose beliefs were considered “heresy” by those in power. And far from being uniformly defensive, these were often aggressive campaigns with the aim of not only conquest but eradication.

The mythos of  Crusades as defense has its roots, curiously enough, in what is generally taken to be the first major Crusade (1096-1099), which was organized ostensibly for the purpose of retaking Jerusalem, which had been conquered by Muslims.  Evidently God wanted Christians to have Jerusalem for themselves, because they consider it a holy place and all.  It is, for one thing, the site of the “Holy Sepulchre”, the reputed burial place of Jesus. The expedition, in other words, was at least as much about recovering control of a shrine as it was about protecting Christians from alleged abuses — arguably a campaign about conquering places and things rather than liberating the oppressed or defending ideals.

Furthermore, the Islamic sacking of Jerusalem occurred some 4 centuries earlier. If the Crusaders were following the calling of The Almighty, they certainly were taking their sweet time about it. One explanation for the delay is that the subjugated Christians in and around Jerusalem found life tolerable enough until the Seljuk Turks took over and began oppressing and persecuting them more heavily. But even if we grant this, they at least were allowed to live under Muslim rule. The conquering Christians did not return the favor, but systematically exterminated the Muslim men, women and children they encountered. They also slaughtered Jews living there, some of whom joined the Muslims in fighting off the Christian invaders — which just might provide a clue as to who the real bad guys were.

Flimsy Defense # 4: The numbers have been inflated

Of course they have. The Crusades, like the witch trials and the Wild West gunfights, have become the stuff of legend. And legend invariably lends itself to hyperbole.

So what’s the point here? That murdering 1000 people is more morally upright than murdering 10,000? This kind of argument might carry a bit more weight if the difference had been 10 or even 100 versus 1000.  But even though the numbers have been exaggerated, they are still quite extreme enough, numbering in the high thousands if not the millions.

Perhaps the purpose of playing the exaggeration card is to suggest that Christian atrocities like the Crusades were carried out by fringe elements, and thus do not represent “true” Christianity, whatever that may mean. In fact, the Crusades were carried out with the approval of, and even under the impetus of, the Pope.

Finally, we should mention that one of the most troubling things about Crusades revisionism is its Machiavellian implications. Which is to say, it suggests that many Christian apologists believe that if they can establish there was worthy reason to undertake the Crusades, then it excuses any and all actions undertaken by the Crusaders. That’s a similar line of reasoning to that exercised by guys who fly planes into buildings.

Let’s be very clear: these holy Crusaders ruthlessly butchered, tortured, beheaded, dismembered, impaled, burned, and even cannibalized innocent people of all ages. At times they literally waded in the blood of their victims, with which they were smeared from head to toe, and wore proudly as a token of their triumph as they exhibited the severed heads and limbs of the vanquished.

Is there really any cause sufficiently holy to justify all of that?

What? Journalists Lie?

OReilly-Williams

As you’ve no doubt heard, NBC news anchor Brian Williams has been suspended for stretching the truth about his coverage of Iraq. Which just goes to prove that them librul journalists are all nothing but a pack of liars. (NBC is librul, of course; every network is assumed librul unless it proves otherwise by bashing Obama to a sufficient degree, and then it can be safely classified as fair and balanced.) And in the frenzy over that revelation, it has surfaced that Fox’s Bill O’Reilly is also guilty of padding his resume several times. Which just goes to show that them libruls have no compunctions about maliciously spreading the truth if it helps their cause.

And although it hasn’t received nearly as much attention, it happens that at least one more Foxer has been tipping the liar meter quite a bit for self-promotion: one Emily Miller has built a career out of an anecdote about a terrifying home invasion she supposedly experienced, but actually didn’t. Which just goes to show that them librulz… well, something or other. In any case, it’s all left a lot of people wondering to what extent journalists can be trusted, anyway.

If I absolutely had to answer that difficult question, I’d probably say something to the effect that I believe most journalists are trustworthy most of the time — and I say this having had a bit of experience as a journalist myself. Nonetheless, I know that inaccurate information does get reported; it’s just not easy to know exactly how often, even in this Age Of Google.

I’ve also been on the receiving end, having been written about in a fair number of media stories. And while the information reported in those stories was about 98 percent accurate, virtually every story contained at least one error — even when the writer had actually interviewed me. Usually, they were minor details that almost nobody but me would know about. And they were honest mistakes, generally the result of connecting dots that had no business being connected. Still, it makes you wonder how frequently the same sort of thing happens to reporters facing a blazing hot deadline to cover breaking news events.

But the fuss isn’t really about mistakes committed because journalists are human. It’s about deliberate misrepresentations such as those committed by Williams and O’Reilly. And with some frequency or other, they do indeed occur.

In 1981, Janet Cooke was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for a story she wrote for the Washington Post about an 8-year-old heroin addict named Jimmy. But she was stripped of her prize when the story turned out be just that. Jimmy was a figment of her imagination. Perhaps she felt justified with the fabrication because Jimmy represented certain genuine cases. But further investigation revealed that she’d also fabricated part of her own credentials and experience.

Many years ago when I was living in San Francisco, a respected dance critic was fired after writing a review of a performance he apparently didn’t attend. Had he done this kind of thing before? Quite possibly. This time he was caught only because he criticized a couple of dancers who, as it turns out, had been replaced at the last minute. Oops.

Ironically, this critic wrote for the S.F. Chronicle, which shortly thereafter was acquired by the Hearst Corporation. That’s Hearst as in William Randolph, who set an astoundingly high bar for journalistic disintegrity.  Although his reputed quote to the effect that “you furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war” is possibly apocryphal, it does give a good indication of his actual attitude, influence and modus operandi. Whether he uttered the statement or not, his propaganda did, to an extent, “furnish” action in the Spanish-American War.

In 1941, cinematic wunderkind Orson Welles produced, co-wrote, directed and starred in Citizen Kane, which many critics regard as the greatest movie of all time. But since the story appears to have been loosely based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper baron did not take kindly to it, and barred the film from being so much as mentioned in his media properties. He also had his journalists repeatedly libel Welles, and he lobbied the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to avoid bestowing honors on the film. Not only did the “Greatest Film Of All Time” fail to win the Oscar for best picture, but Welles was even booed whenever his name was mentioned during the ceremony that year.

Hearst also waged a sensationalized crusade against marijuana, as did much of the media in his time — though the popular notion that it was fueled by a desire to eliminate hemp as a cheaper alternative to paper is highly dubious. Still, he was definitely a titan of yellow journalism and a highly vindictive practitioner of smear tactics. He was, in short, the Rupert Murdoch of his day.

Speaking of whom, it’s a sign of the times that there is so much focus being directed on the efforts of talking heads to swell their heads even bigger, and so little focus on the more pervasive falsehoods that potentially have much more impact on us all. By all indications, Fox lies far more often than any other network — which is hardly surprising, since Fox is only marginally a news network, and it’s questionable whether its personalities can even be classified as journalists. Politifact has found in recent cursory evaluations that Fox lied, at least in part, about 60 percent of the time. Another estimate has the network lying more than 80 percent of the time. (And bear in mind that its few truthful utterances include those that depart from its normal ideology.)

Jon Stewart (what a void he is going to leave) responded to Fox’s pot-and-kettle accusations that he had been lying by challenging them to a “lie-off”, and producing a clip of 50 Fox lies in 6 seconds. Of course the 50 lies had been gleaned from a much longer time span than 6 seconds; but as you may recall, I previously found 8 lies in a real-time Fox clip of just under two minutes. And it was a clip chosen essentially at random.

Stewart also bemoans the tortuous pretzels that the official story often gets twisted into in order to accommodate extreme right-wing dogma:

Fifteen states have approved Voter ID laws in the absence of any meaningful evidence of voter fraud. An Oklahoma state committee voted to ban AP history for not sugar coating slavery enough. Abstinence is approved sex education. Scientific fact isn’t reported now. It’s debated.

Actually, it’s even worse than Stewart indicates. We’ve reached the point that virtually any fact is considered negotiable; many people seem to have the attitude that evolution and global warming will just disappear if we have strong enough opinions about them. You’ve probably heard a lot about the “debate” over global warming and the “debate” over vaccines. In reality, there is no debate on either subject. There are only arrogant and gullible individuals who are convinced they know more than the experts. And in order to reinforce that belief, they are quite willing to latch onto whatever falsehoods the hucksters toss their way.

So let’s see now. We get a whole lot of media focus on Brian Williams. Much less on Bill O’Reilly. Less still on Emily Miller. And (aside from media watchdog sites on the left) damn little about Fox’s relentless dishonesty. Could it be that there is more attention paid to “liberal” dishonesty and considerably less to “conservative” dishonesty. Nah, can’t be. We all know that there’s an overwhelming librul bias to the media, right? So what’s the alternative? That the more trivial a lie is, the brighter the spotlight on it?

In light of the persistent and consistent record of Fox mendacity, it might seem a bit trifling to make such an opera out of a couple of TV personalities fibbing to boost their credentials. But they do say that sunshine is the best disinfectant; and maybe, just maybe, airing out the relatively petty transgressions of Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly will lead to some level of accountability for Fox. But my advice, for what it’s worth, is not to suspend all respiration until it happens.

Obama Speaks Truth, Obama Haters Have Meltdown

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They called it a shameful statement, an embarrassment, an act of self-destruction on the part of President Obama, a defense of terrorism,  and an out-and-out attack on Christianity. They said that he was equating terrorism with Christianity, a “moral equivalency” that was “stupid and dumb” (both??). They called it “moral stupidity” (at least it wasn’t immoral stupidity). They said the president was displaying his own closet Muslim faith, and his hatred of America itself. They even touted it as proof that “liberals” in general (of which they’re immovably convinced Obama is one) love terrorists and hate America. What horrific utterance did the president commit in order to earn this (self) righteous condemnation? It was a little statement he made at the National Prayer Breakfast:

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ…. So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.

The National Prayer Breakfast is an event sponsored by the ultra-right wing fundamentalist group known by the appropriately godfatherish name The Family. As usual, the president displayed chutzpah in venturing onto hostile turf and offering an olive branch. And as usual, he was eloquent and insightful. In fact, the more rational observers hailed his address as “brilliant”, “remarkable”, and “a powerful celebration of America’s religious tradition.” Naturally, then, the right-wing fanatics went absolutely apeshit, spewing out an avalanche of straw men, dopey insinuations, references to nutty rumors, and downright lies:

The president’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime. He has offended every believing Christian in the United States. This goes further to the point that Mr. Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share. (Former VA Governor Jim Gilmore)

We all share the values that slavery and slaughter are desirable if done by the right people?

prayer breakfast 1

Guess I missed it. When exactly did he “blame the Crusades”?

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“Nominal Christian”? Cute. Would you say the same about the pope? It was a pope who spearheaded the Crusades. How much more “true” does it need to be?

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Guess I missed it. When exactly did he try to justify horrific acts of barbarism, Islamic or otherwise?  But somebody else missed the fact that he did NOT have to go back 1000 years.

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Guess I missed it. When exactly did he insult Christians? And why would he do that when he is at least a “nominal Christian” himself?

So Barack Obama, leftwing community organizer and closet theologian, used the National Prayer Breakfast to throw a tu quoque at anyone critical of Islam while continuing to fancy himself as the Pope of Islam (Conservative News)

Gotta admit that “tu quoque” is a level of diction several notches above the Palinesque, but unfortunately we can’t say the same for the content.

Mr. President, you… are damning your reputation as a president and may never hold any regard or esteem of the American people. Then again, perhaps that was always your aim, as you fundamentally transform our beloved Constitutional Republic. (Allen West)

The ever-reliable Mr. West, who presumes to give the “Islamapologist In Chief” a history lesson, also claims that lynchings in America were supported by “Democrat (sic) Christians”.

One evil man had the audacity to attack Christianity and defend Islam in the midst of 3,500 Christians at the recent National Prayer Breakfast… Barack Obama and others like him have a direct connection to evil; whereas too often people serving God are not directly connected to truth. This is why Obama can lie and push his destructive agenda and mercilessly attack our freedoms and sacred institutions. (CNS)

This latter, hilariously enough, appears in a piece titled “Christians, It’s Time to  Get Over Your Illusions”.

In the midst of all this sound and fury and manufactured outrage, one little fact was a bit neglected: the president’s observations were absolutely on the mark. Horrific deeds have indeed been committed in the name of Christianity, and just about every other religion that ever has existed. He was right about slavery. He was right about Jim Crow. He was right about the Inquisition. And yes, despite the current tide of trendy historical revisionism, he was even right about the Crusades.

But these episodes are only a sampling of the violence that has been performed in the name of Christianity. We touched upon this in a recent discussion (“The Christian Persecution Complex, and the Myth of the School Prayer Ban”), though it really was just scratching the surface. During the interval of time between Christianity’s coming to power in the Fourth Century, and up to the modern age, there has been an average of one major episode of Christian barbarism every 15 to 20 years. And these are just the major episodes, most of which were massive campaigns that claimed the lives of many victims.

One of these was a campaign by England to “civilize” non-Christians in Ireland by slaughtering tens of thousands of them. One of the commanders of the forces, Humphrey Gilbert, ordered that

the heads of all those (of what sort soever they were) which were killed in the day, should be cut off from their bodies… and should be laid on the ground by each side of the way … (to cause) great terror to the people when they saw the heads of their dead fathers, brothers, children, kinsfolk, and friends on the ground.

And if you’re a fan of Fox “News”, you might have been under the impression that ISIS invented beheading.

As for the beloved Crusades, one (Christian) chronicler of the noble exploits recorded that during one particular siege the noble Crusaders

did no other harm to the women found in [the enemy’s] tents—save that they ran their lances through their bellies

How very Christian of them to be such gentlemen. Makes you wonder what kind of harm they’d been doing to other females they’d encountered.

You might object that some of these episodes were not of a particularly religious nature, or that there were sometimes other motives in addition to religious ones. True, but the point is that these horrible deeds were committed by Christians. Or at least nominal Christians. Furthermore Christian beliefs were often cited as the justification for atrocities, even when they actually may have been committed for other reasons. The very fact that dogma can be considered a justification for savagery is itself a damning indictment of a social order dominated by religious fanaticism.

I’ve always been fond of Philip Roth’s short story Defender of the Faith, in which a Jewish army sergeant decides to crack down on one of his fellow Jewish soldiers because he realizes that defending his religion entails defending it not only from the outside but from the inside. That’s a lesson that many Christians don’t want to learn; but President Obama seems to understand perfectly. If you’re a Christian, perhaps you should ask yourself which sentiment you’d rather have expressing your religious values to the world: (a) “I’m appalled by the things some Christians have done, and I pledge to do better'; or (b) “Atrocities? You’re talking about history. You obviously hate Christianity and hate America.”

In writing for Time about the Bizarro Planet reaction to the the president’s speech, Eric Yoffie notes

One would think that both religious and political conservatives would have applauded the President’s remarks, which celebrated American religion and affirmed the centrality of religion in American society.

And he goes on to ask why such “self-evident” truths should be considered the least bit controversial. He chalks it up to Christian “denial”, and that probably is indeed one factor. But the reaction was probably at least as much political as religious. In other words, it was yet another manifestation of Obama Derangement Syndrome, the obsession with trying to make a scandal out of absolutely anything and everything the current president says or does.

It’s certainly not unheard of for presidents to spark controversy when they’re caught telling lies. But Barack Obama very well might be the first politician in history to possess the uncanny power to generate controversy and cause reactionary heads to explode just by telling the self-evident truth.

 

Pascal’s Wager, and the Overrated Question

Pascal

Of all the questions I hate being asked, few are as annoying as “Do you believe in God?” For one thing, it’s a very overrated question: what difference does it make whether any particular individual possesses such a conviction? Will God disappear in a whiff of smoke if He doesn’t maintain a quota of devotees?

Though they may not realize it, people who exalt this query to a position of prominence are indulging in a form of gambling. They are participating in what has come to be called Pascal’s Wager,  after a rumination by the French philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662).

Pascal was a brilliant thinker who penned some very stimulating discussions of some very significant ideas. This is not one of them. It’s quite ironic that the one utterance for which such a great thinker is most often remembered is in fact one of the most inept oddities of illogic ever to creep into the textbooks. Treating the existence of God as a gambling proposition, he concludes:

Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. (…) There is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite.

This expresses what gamblers call an overlay, meaning that the potential gain for a positive outcome exceeds the sum of potential losses for all possible negative outcomes. Though such a situation is, as you might expect, difficult to find in the gambling world, Pascal is convinced he has a sure thing. But there are at least three major flaws to his proposition:

1. Belief is not a button.

The first problem is that, as Pascal himself observes only a couple of sentences later, faith isn’t exactly something that you can just turn on or off.

But some cannot believe. They should then ‘at least learn your inability to believe…’ and ‘Endeavour then to convince’ themselves.

How exactly should those who “cannot believe” try to “convince themselves”? If he’s going to urge people to attempt the impossible, he might at least offer a couple of pointers.

It’s conceivable that we ultimately have no choice in whether we are believers or skeptics, even when we convert from one to the other. It may be that such options are the inevitable product of how we process and react to information; and that those details are determined by biological/ biographical factors over which we have little or no volition.

From all appearances, however, we do have at least some control in the matter. And assuming that we do, the choice to believe is in some ways more of a voluntary commitment than the choice to doubt. If you decide to believe, for instance, that the earth is 6000 years old or that vaccines cause autism, you must exercise an ongoing effort to single out factoids that seem to support your conclusion and steer clear of the mountain of evidence that contradicts it.

A commitment to skepticism, on the other hand, is more general and open-minded. Even assuming that the decision to be skeptical (which I highly recommend, by the way) is made totally of your own free will, the thing is that it comprises a broad resolution to demand that extraordinary claims be backed up by extraordinary proof.

Once you become entrenched in this mindset, skepticism comes naturally, and you’re quite receptive to all kinds of information, since you have no dogma to be threatened. You automatically challenge any extraordinary claim — of which the concept of a supreme being is perhaps the most extraordinary of all. (Note, however, that some avowed “skeptics” are not truly skeptical at all; climate science deniers, for instance, may peg themselves as skeptics but in reality they’ve simply chosen to believe that scientists are incompetent and/or dishonest — a premise that a true skeptic would question thoroughly.)

2. Bait and switch

Pascal begins by talking about God, and the next thing you know he’s talking about eternal happiness. How did he get from Point A to Point B? Clearly, in his mind there’s a link between the two. And that link unquestionably is Christian dogma. For those who believe the “right” things, dogmatists tell us, endless bliss awaits in the afterlife; for those who don’t, it’s an eternity of agony (at least as far as fundamentalists are concerned.)

Religion, by the way, is itself highly overrated; for many people it’s the most important thing in the whole world. For some, it’s just about the only thing that really matters.  For my own part, I can hardly think of anything I’d consider less important than religion. But it isn’t for personal reasons that I call it overrated; it’s because many religious people are quite oblivious to the fact that religion isn’t for everyone.

Whatever its degree of importance, it certainly has been injected into American public life to an excessive degree. More to the point, the supposed validity of religious doctrines is an entirely separate matter from the supposed existence of a divine being.

Pascal treats the two as if they were interchangeable, or at least inseparable.  But there are many people who believe in God, yet are not religious. For that matter, there are many religious people who consider themselves atheists – including some ministers. Of course, they are very discreet about it, because many of their flock consider atheism the ultimate evil.

3. Say what?

But the main reason I find the Overrated Question so annoying — and so overrated — is that it is in itself quite meaningless. If you tell me that you believe in God, what exactly have you told me? Nothing, without some clarification. I could tell you today that I do too, then tell you tomorrow that I don’t — and be perfectly accurate and honest in both instances. It all depends on how I happened to define my terms at the moment.

And this is where many great philosophers dropped the ball. They considered it important to “prove” the existence of God, sometimes with elaborate logical constructs modeled after geometric proofs. But they were rather negligent in explaining exactly what it was they were trying to prove the existence of. The word God means different things to different people, ranging from (to quote a humorous recording from the Sixties) “hairy thunderer” to “cosmic muffin”.

For some people God is literally an anthropomorphic entity up there somewhere over the rainbow, using the earth for a footstool. For others, He is a being of an unimaginable nature, with or without a humanoid personality. For others, He/ It is a more abstract spirit underlying all of nature. (“PANTHEISM, n. The doctrine that everything is God, in contradistinction to the doctrine that God is everything.” — Ambrose Bierce.)  Some think of God in a fashion quite similar to The Force from Star Wars.  Others might simply say that God is a name for that which has no other name or explanation. (This philosophy prompted one noted skeptic to observe that since we are learning more and more every day, God is shrinking every day.)

If that isn’t complicated enough, there are also different levels of belief. You can believe something literally or figuratively. You can believe something with all your heart, mind and soul to the point that you’re willing to stake your life (and afterlife) on it. You can believe that something is probably true, but hedge your bets. You can believe that something may be true, but be unwilling to commit to assuming it is. You can believe it’s reasonable for other people to believe that something is true, but not really believe it yourself.  You can believe that something is true on some planes of reality, but not the one you happen to inhabit. You can offer a tenet a kind of meta-belief, as one might believe in Santa Claus or Batman.

In short, The Overrated Question is one that cannot be adequately answered with a simple yes or no. But that is exactly the kind of response the questioners almost invariably expect, so they can pigeonhole you and — quite often — condemn you if you answer the wrong way.

A few years ago, I was having a stimulating conversation with a relative who was suffering from a terminal illness when he posed the question point blank. I was uncomfortable as I always am when somebody does that; knowing that his side of the family was fiercely Catholic, I didn’t think I could offer a response that he would find acceptable. But since he’d been straight with me, I was straight with him.

“Depends on what you mean by God”, I said. I figured this would throw him off balance and he’d drop it. But as it turns out, I was the one thrown off balance.

“The spirit of universal love”, he replied.

Now this is a rather nebulous concept itself, but it still narrows the field considerably in comparison to God. And it was not a concept that I felt I could reject.

I regret to say that since then, this relative has passed on to the next level, if there is one. Unlike most people, I don’t claim to know whether he really has had a chance to experience God at close range. But I do know that when it comes to figuring out what kind of God he was expecting to encounter, he was (unlike a great many people) on the right track.

A Brief Break

This is just to let everyone know that I will be out of the country Jan. 18-22, and my Internet access may be limited. So there may be a delay in approving/ responding to comments.

The Christian Persecution Complex, and the Myth of the School Prayer Ban

Prayer in school

Christians really have it rough in America, don’t they? They have to purchase all their earthly goods using money with “In God We Trust” (the official national motto) emblazoned on it. They have to recite a Pledge Of Allegiance with “one nation under God” inserted into it. Most of their leaders at national, state and local levels are fellow Christians, and their president is sworn into office with his hand on a Bible. Milestone ceremonies such as weddings and funerals are almost always conducted by ministers. Witnesses in court swear to tell the truth “so help you God”. Christians control most of what kids learn in school and most of what citizens see and hear in the media — which just might explain why you hear so much about Islamic terrorists and almost nothing about the equally prevalent (and usually closer to home) Christian terrorists.

The nefarious War On Christmas limits their celebration of their favorite holiday to only three months out of the year– and even then, some wretched spoilsports insist on extending holiday good cheer to everyone instead of restricting it to Christians. Gays are trying to get married, which somehow would make Christians less married.  And oh yes, prayer has been “outlawed” in public schools. Which, as everyone knows, is why schools are failing so miserably, and kids have no moral compass, and the nation is rapidly going down the drain.

Except that the last named is a patent lie. Or, to be as charitable as possible, it’s at least a patent misconception. The continually falling crime rate suggests that Americans are finding their moral compass rather than losing it. More to the point, prayer has never been banned from schools, not by the Supreme Court, nor Congress, nor President Obama, nor Michael Moore, nor anyone else. What really happened was that the Supreme Court put a damper on (though by no means did it entirely eliminate) religious tyranny. And many Christians, deprived of their tyranny, feel that they themselves are being tyrannized.

To be sure, there are plenty of Christians who are perfectly decent human beings. Many of them even recognize the importance of separating church and state. But they, alas, are not the ones who have inherited the scepter and the megaphone.  It has often been the very worst representatives of Christendom who have risen to the upper echelons of society; consequently, mainstream Christianity, perhaps more than any other religion, has devolved with an arrogant attitude of unbridled entitlement; many Christians tend to feel that they have an unassailable right to control the world, to make their beliefs official policy for everyone– while at the same time whining about how much they are being persecuted and oppressed. We’ve already discussed how anyone who challenges their vendetta against gays is portrayed as being bigoted, hostile and anti-Christian.

Unfortunately, we already have a history — a very long and very bloody history — to illustrate what happens when the church is granted its desire for absolute domination.  In the good old days when religion ruled the world with an iron crucifix, anyone who ran a little afoul of the official doctrine or lifestyle would be the recipient of a very special religious ceremony. It might entail, for example, having deep gashes cut into their limbs and chests, which then would be filled with hot lead. Or being skinned alive. Or having all their flesh ripped off by hooks. Or being dismembered at the rate of one joint per day. Or having all their bones broken and then being dragged through the streets.  Or, if they were very lucky, they merely had a hot iron mask placed on their face, leaving them blind and disfigured. Or were merely subjected to the heretic’s fork.

heretics fork

And this type of treat, mind you, was not reserved just for nonbelievers; quite often the victims were themselves pious Christians who happened to interpret the Bible in a slightly different fashion from whoever was in a position of authority at the moment. Cecco d’Ascoli, an Italian scientist, was burned at the stake in 1327 for calculating the date of Jesus’ birth using the stars. A  Spanish Protestant writing master was burned at the stake in 1676 for decorating his room with the (so-called) Ten Commandments. Nothing like a little fatal torture to teach people about the Love Of Christ and the Will Of God.

Incidentally, it’s another misconception that burning at the stake involved anything so merciful as merely setting someone afire. In reality, the “heretics” generally were slowly roasted alive. This became the preferred method of execution after some Christian or other began to worry that some Biblical passage or other prohibited the shedding of blood. So they came up with a prolonged and agonizing method of killing that didn’t spill a drop. Whatever it takes to keep God happy.

Note that the two incidents mentioned above occurred more than three centuries apart; so obviously, they weren’t just isolated outcroppings of a temporary hysteria. Christianity’s endorsement of torture and barbarism lasted nearly 1500 years — which rather neatly coincides with the era in which the church controlled government.  Fifteen centuries of unrestricted license to murder, torture, maim and commit the most vile acts the twisted mind can conjure up. And yet Christians today feel victimized because they no longer can force students to pray, and some people wish them “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas”.

This reign of terror more or less started winding down about the time the pious brought their faith to the New World, in a quest for religious freedom and tolerance — which included stamping out the native religions if not the natives themselves. In the Shangri-La of religious freedom and tolerance they founded, citizens might be horse-whipped or pilloried for missing a church service, and they might be hanged for being a “witch”, but at least they wouldn’t be burned a the stake for “heresy”. Maybe Christians so often feel persecuted because they so often have persecuted each other.

Eventually,  a more genteel social order developed in which a legal structure was in place to protect against these horrors; but that doesn’t necessarily mean that theocrats wouldn’t still do something comparable if they still could get away with it. They’ve still found plenty of other ways to lord it over the populace.

Those of us beyond a certain age (and mind you, I’m not all that old) grew up in an environment in which Christianity’s sway was still near-absolute and generally unquestioned. Church attendance was mandatory — sometimes literally so, as a judge could order people to attend church as part of their “rehabilitation”. Prayers and Bible readings were routine in school classrooms. Teachers could be fired for teaching scientific principles that the church did not approve of. Prospective graduates, in addition to attending a commencement ceremony to receive their diplomas, had to attend a baccalaureate to be given a final push toward a Christian life — just in case the previous 12 years of programming didn’t completely take.  Anyone who dared question any of this would become the target of relentless Christian bullying.

But this finally began to change in the Sixties, And the change was, in no small measure, the result of the actions of one incredibly courageous woman. It’s hard not to admire her sheer cojones even if you don’t approve of her actions.

mmohair

Madalyn Murray O’Hair (1919-1995) was an army veteran, a respected social worker, and a devoted single mother of two. And oh yes, she was also an atheist.  And that one little thing, in the eyes of her community and indeed her nation as a whole, more than cancelled any of the good she may have done.  “Atheist” had come to be synonymous with pure evil — an attitude many people still possess today. Good Christians often utter the word with the same kind of snarl with which you’d expect them to say “traitor” or “terrorist” or “pedophile” or “liberal”. Not surprisingly, then, she and her two sons were not very popular in the city of Baltimore, where they lived. And it became much worse after she initiated the lawsuit that would make her “the most hated woman in America”.

That all began in 1960 when her 14-year-old son Bill* begged her to intervene because he was being forced to participate in prayers at school. So she launched a lawsuit which eventually made its way to the Supreme Court. And she won. And how did the Good Christians react? Here’s her account of what happened, even before the Court delivered its ruling:

I’d been a psychiatric social worker for 17 years, but within 24 hours after I started the case, I was fired from my job as a supervisor in the city public welfare department. And I was unable to find another one, because the moment I would go in anywhere in town and say that my name was Madalyn Murray no matter what the job opening, I found the job filled; no matter how good my qualifications, they were never quite good enough. So my income was completely cut off.

The second kind of reprisal was psychological. The first episode was with our mail, which began to arrive, if at all, slit open and empty — just empty envelopes. Except for the obscene and abusive letters from good Christians all over the country, calling me a bitch and a Lesbian and a Communist for instituting the school-prayer suit — they somehow arrived intact, and by the bushel-basketful. Hundreds of them actually threatened our lives.

(There were) anonymous phone calls we’d get at every hour of the day and night, which were more or less along the same lines as the letters. One of them was a particular gem. I was in the VA hospital in Baltimore and I had just had a very critical operation; they didn’t think I was going to make it. They had just wheeled me back to my bed after two days in the recovery room when this call came in for me, and somebody who wouldn’t give his name told me very seriously and sympathetically that my father had just died and that I should be prepared to come home and take care of my mother. Well, I called home in a state of shock, and my mother answered, and I asked her about Father, and she said, “What are you talking about? He’s sitting here at this moment eating bacon and eggs.” Obviously, that call had been calculated to kill me, because whoever it was knew that I was at a low ebb there in the hospital.

Then they began to take more direct action. My Freethought Society office was broken into; our cars were vandalized repeatedly; every window in the house was broken more times than I can count, every flower in my garden trampled into the ground all my maple trees uprooted; my property looked like a cyclone had hit it. This is the kind of thing that went on constantly,constantly, over a three-year period.

But it was just child’s play compared to the reprisals visited upon my son Bill. He’d go to school every day and hand in his homework, and a couple of days later many of his teachers would say to him, “You didn’t hand in your homework.” Or he’d take a test and about a week later many of his teachers would tell him, “You didn’t hand in your test paper. You’ll have to take the test again this afternoon.” This was a dreadful reprisal to take against a 14-year-old boy. It got to the point where he had to make carbon copies of all his homework and all his tests to prove that he had submitted them.

But that’s nothing to what happened after school, both to him and to his little brother, Garth. I lost count of the times they came home bloodied and beaten up by gangs of teenage punks; five and six of them at a time would gang up on them and beat the living hell out of them. Many’s the time I’ve stood them off myself to protect my sons, and these fine young Christians have spat in my face till spittle dripped down on my dress. Time and again we’d take them into magistrate’s court armed with damning evidence and eyewitness testimony, but the little bastards were exonerated every time.

But I haven’t told you the worst. The neighborhood children, of course, were forbidden by their parents to play with my little boy, Garth, so I finally got him a little kitten to play with. A couple of weeks later we found it on the porch with its neck wrung. And then late one night our house was attacked with stones and bricks by five or six young Christians, and my father got very upset and frightened. Well, the next day he dropped dead of a heart attack. The community knew very well that he had a heart condition, so I lay a murder to the city of Baltimore.

These were, one gathers, the actions of True Believers who felt that they were being persecuted and oppressed because of their beliefs.

But please note that contrary to what you so often hear, the Supreme Court’s ruling did not — repeat did not — ban prayer in schools. On the contrary, in several cases addressing the issue over the years, the Court consistently has affirmed that prayer on school property is a constitutional right — provided it is performed at an appropriate place and time. But the appropriate place and time do not include during class or in any manner that might constitute a government endorsement of religion. It was not until the year 2000 that the Court finally got around to figuring out that this eliminates official school functions such as ballgames.

Students and teachers, however, have the right to — and often do — still pray on campus. They may pray between classes, at lunchtime, before school starts, after school is over, etc. etc.– so long as it doesn’t dovetail with official school business and doesn’t drag in unwilling participants.  In short, it’s an arrangement designed to satisfy everyone.

But Christian extremists absolutely refuse to be appeased. They want a battle, they want an enemy, they want power. They will settle for nothing less than complete dominance. In the words of one of the leading icons of the “religious right”, Randall Terry, founder of the (so called) pro-life group Operation Rescue:

I want you to just let a wave of intolerance wash over you… I want you to let a wave of hatred wash over you. Yes, hate is good… Our goal is a Christian nation. We have a biblical duty, we are called by God, to conquer this country. We don’t want equal time. We don’t want pluralism.

For people like this “religious freedom” isn’t about having the right to pray; it’s about having the “right” to force other people to live by your beliefs.

We still have a long way to go before religious neutrality achieves anything like an equal footing with Christian authoritarianism; before nonreligious politicians have as much a chance to be elected to office as Christians do; before it is no longer the default mode for children to be indoctrinated into whatever religion their parents follow; before mainstream Christians are more concerned with following the teachings of Jesus than with demonizing non-believers; before the U.S. as a whole recognizes that true freedom of religion must necessarily include freedom from religion. But we have at least made some progress. And to fundamentalist reactionaries, that progress is construed as a personal affront. They no do doubt will even consider it a vicious attack to report the facts we’ve reported here; what they cannot do, however, is dispute that these are indeed facts.

Rather than acknowledge — and perhaps try to make amends for — the multitude of evils that have been done, and are still being done, in the name of their faith, they try to shift blame to their critics, portraying themselves as hapless victims of a secularist jihad. In doing so, they continually spread such dishonest narratives as the “War on Christmas” and the fabled “school prayer ban”.

(* Christians often delight in pointing out that as an adult, Bill converted to Christianity despite his atheist upbringing. The part of the story they tend to leave out is that he demonstrated his “Christian values” by abandoning his daughter Robin, whom his mother adopted and raised as her own.

Indeed, O’Hair may have been too generous for her own good. She made a practice of offering jobs in her organization to former felons — which probably made her considerably more charitable in that regard than most churches. In 1995, one such former employee and convict whom she’d fired for stealing from her enlisted two accomplices to abduct and extort O’Hair, Robin and O’Hair’s other son Jon Garth — both of whom were officers in O’Hair’s organization. All three eventually were murdered and dismembered. 

After learning of the crime, Bill responded by writing an article attacking his murdered mother, brother and daughter, with not a kind word for any of them. He characterized his mother — the mother who had bravely stood by him during his childhood years of being brutalized by Christian bullies, and had gone to bat for him in the courts at his own pleading and at great risk to herself — as the embodiment of pure unadulterated evil. He repeated as undisputed truth every unsavory rumor and allegation he could think of about his mother, including the accusation that she had a fondness for — horrors — pornography, and the suspicion that her organization was, like a good many churches, less than perfectly forthright with the IRS.)

Political Discourse in the Age of Obama

political debate

(From Actual Conversations)

ME

So why do you hate President Obama so much?

THEM

Are you kidding? He’s worse than Hitler. He’s destroyed America.

ME

Then I have to wonder what country we’re living in. How exactly has he done that?

THEM

He’s a dictator, a tyrant, a king, a monarch.

ME

Even assuming that’s true, you surely must realize that Republicans in Congress have opposed him bitterly at every turn – even on things they formerly supported. Wouldn’t you say that rather limits his potential for dictating, tyrannizing, kinging, monarching and Hitlering?

THEM

Well, Obummer bypasses Congress with his dirty tricks. He’s issued all these executive orders, which is absolutely unprecedented.  He should be impeached for that.

ME

Actually, every president issues executive orders. And quite often they’re in defiance of Congress.

THEM

Yeah, well… Ovomit has issued more of them than any other president.

ME

Actually, he’s issued the fewest per year of any president since Grover Cleveland.

THEM

Yeah, well… it’s not just the number, it’s the kind of executive order that matters. I mean, Obeyme has used his office to give amnesty to illegal aliens. Just because he’s a foreigner himself. He ought to be impeached for that.

ME

Actually, many presidents have granted amnesty to undocumented aliens.  Reagan and Bush Sr. did so without Congressional approval. Should we impeach them all retroactively? What makes Obama different, other than his ethnic heritage?

THEM

Now there you go. Why do liberals always have to bring up race?

ME

I seem to recall that a non-liberal introduced the topic of the president’s roots and supposed foreign birth. Whether or not I’m a “liberal” is irrelevant, but race is sometimes very relevant, or at least potentially so. Because sometimes it’s the only reasonable explanation for the way some people behave. And that’s certainly the case when it comes to the obsessive hatred of President Obama.

THEM

Well, I don’t hate him just because he’s a nigger. Makes no difference to me. I hate him because he’s a dictator, a tyrant, a king, a monarch. He’s worse than Hitler. Just look at the whole socialism thing.

ME

What socialism thing is that?

THEM

Come on, he’s a socialist. Everybody knows that.

ME

Socialists themselves don’t know it. They find it quite amusing that some people believe Obama to be one of them.

THEM

Well, what would they know? Rush Limbaugh says he’s a socialist. Just look at Obamacare. It’s socialized medicine. Just like Hitler. He ought to be impeached for it.

ME

What is your definition of socialism?

THEM

Well… I don’t really have one. But Glenn Beck says it’s socialized medicine. And Obarfbag has rammed it down everyone’s throats, even though nobody wants it. Just like Hitler.

ME

It’s true that most Americans will say they oppose “Obamacare”, if you use that word. But if you ask them about what the Affordable Care Act actually does, an overwhelming majority support it. So the president has been placed in the difficult position of giving Americans what they want, even though they’ve been convinced that it’s something they hate and fear.

THEM

Oh yeah? I bet people don’t really want death panels.

ME

Agreed. And exactly what passage in the ACA provides for death panels? Have you actually read it?

THEM

No, but Sarah Palin says it has death panels. And I’m sure she’s read it. She’s very smart.

ME

Moving right along. Is there anything else that prompts you to hate Obama?

THEM

Sure, lots of things.

ME

Such as?

THEM

He lies.

ME

Ah, that might explain the animosity. No other politician has ever lied before. But how significant are his lies? On a scale one to ten, with one being “I did not have sex with that woman” and ten being “WMDs in Iraq” — or reverse the polarity if your values are those of the political and media mainstream — just how damaging have been whatever lies he’s told?

THEM

He’s lied, and he should be impeached for it. Take that global warming crap. It’s worse than Hitler.

ME

So you don’t believe global warming is a problem?

THEM

Hell no. It snowed in Montana last week.

ME

And no doubt it also snowed in Wasila. But other than that, what convinces you that global warming is a hoax? How much professional training and experience have you had in climate science?

THEM

None. But Sean Hannity says global warming is a fraud.

ME

I guess that settles it then.

THEM

You’d realize it too if you weren’t so brainwashed by the liberal media.

ME

Of course. Why do you suppose the president would pursue the effort to combat global warming if it doesn’t exist?

THEM

It’s just one of Hussein’s ways of wrecking the economy.  Just like Hitler. And he needs to be impeached for it.

ME

Actually, the economy has been improving at a pretty steady pace under “Hussein”.  Unemployment is at its lowest since 2008. Gas prices are at their lowest since 2010. Home construction has more than doubled. The deficit has experienced its largest reduction since World War II. Consumer Confidence Index has risen from an all-time low of 37.7 to at least 83. And the rate of growth for corporate profits under him absolutely dwarfs that of any other president – which doesn’t t do much for your “socialism thing”.

THEM

You really like to throw statistics around, don’t you?

ME

Sorry, I guess that’s not playing fair.

THEM

You don’t really believe he had anything to do with any of that, do you?

ME

So he has total power to destroy the economy, but no power at all to improve it?

THEM

Well, I suppose he could improve it if he wanted to. But he wants to make Americans suffer.

ME

Why?

THEM

That’s just what liberals do. They’re worse than Hitler.

ME

There’s a limit to how far you can go in blaming “liberals” for your problems. We could debate how much influence any president has on the economy. But what’s beyond question is that the economy has improved while Obama’s been in office. And since that also happens under just about every other Democratic president, it’s probably not just coincidence.

THEM

Well, the economy may have improved a little bit, but it’s still really crappy.

ME

If so, it indicates what terrible shape it was in when Obama came along. His predecessor demolished the economy along with many other things. If you’re looking for someone to accuse of trying to “destroy” America, maybe Bush would be a better place to start.

THEM

Well, you have your opinion and I have mine.

ME

Unquestionably. But this is not a matter of opinion. If you’re interested, I can provide plenty of solid facts and figures that add up to a blistering indictment of the Bush administration.

THEM

Why do you hate America so much?