6 Silly Narratives About the Gay Marriage Ruling and the Confederate Flag Flap

confederate-gay-flag

What, the world is still standing? After the Confederate flag started coming down and the rainbow flag started popping up in a single week, the word on the street was that The Final Days were at hand. Although the two developments had little if anything in common, the same reactionaries tended to react to both, and in a similar fashion. And they did their damnedest to squeeze both into a cohesive narrative of degeneration, persecution, oppression, and ominousness.

If you thought the cultural purge over the Confederate flag was breathtaking — wait until you see what LGBT activists do with Christians.  (Todd Starnes of Fox “News”)

Talk show host Bryan Fischer, who evidently can get better drugs than you can, commented about the Court’s ruling, “I saw Satan dancing with delight”. And of the backlash against the Confederate flag he said:

If we are going to remove symbols of oppression from our culture, if we come to the point where we say any flag that represents bigotry, any flag that represents hatred, any flag that represents slavery or oppression needs to be removed, then I want to suggest to you that the next flag to go ought to be the rainbow flag of the Gay Reich.

Fischer is a one-person Bartlett’s of loony right-wing soundbites. As is this guy:

This could well be the straw that breaks the camel’s back – that camel being the up till now silent, passive Americans who have been cowed into “tolerating” societal changes that go counter to their fundamental beliefs (Allen West)

These people have been silent and passive up until now??? Heaven knows what kind of earplugs we’re going to need if they ever decide to start mouthing off. West and Fischer didn’t go it alone, of course, but had plenty of other people echoing their inflammatory rhetoric.

“Today is some of the darkest 24 hours in our nation’s history”, lamented Ted Cruz to Sean Hannity of fairandbalanced Fox “News”, who promptly agreed, “I couldn’t have said it more eloquently”. (All too true, alas.) Which presumably puts this ruling right up there with Pearl Harbor, the JFK assassination, and the same court’s hijacking of the presidential election in 2000.

Some individuals mused about what would happen if a gay couple wanted to put a Confederate flag on their wedding cake — would the baker have to oblige? Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk. This is a simple conflation of a hypothetical refusal to portray a certain image on a cake with a hypothetical refusal to serve an entire class of citizens. But nice try, guys.

Other responses to these disparate events didn’t necessarily try deliberately to bundle them together, but did often place them on parallel tracks. Here are six of the most frequent narratives.

Silly Narrative #1: It’s an anti-American thing

Many Americans responded joyously to the news of the Supreme Court’s decision by decking out their Facebook pages with the rainbow flag. Not to be outdone, many reactionaries responded in protest by draping their pages with the American flag. Huh??? How exactly is that supposed to be a protest? Is it intended to suggest that gays aren’t really Americans? Not even James Buchanan, a gay U.S. president who was elected more than 150 years ago? If they are Americans, how can it be un-American for them to get married?

The reactionaries also denounced it as un-American that some people aren’t in love with the Confederate battle banner. Just try wrapping your head around that one for a moment.  The Confederacy, lest we forget, was a treasonous faction that fought  an extremely bloody war against the United States Of America, brandishing this very flag – a battle fought primarily (contrary to revisionist spin) for the “right” to enslave and oppress an entire race. (Note that the iconic X-flag so often displayed was not the official national flag of the Confederacy itself, but a flag specifically designed for military forces.) Yet now, many self-proclaimed “patriots” proudly celebrate their Dixie “heritage” by exhibiting this symbol of bigotry, tyranny, insurrection and violence alongside the Stars and Stripes they claim to revere.

Silly Narrative #2. It’s a government overstepping thing

How dare the government try to dictate to us what flags we can and cannot fly? Well, don’t look now, but the big bad guvmint has done no such thing. What did happen was that the government of South Carolina, via due democratic  process, resolved to stop rubbing its “proud tradition” of insurrection and oppression in the public’s face, and no longer fly the Dixie rag on government property. And a few retail chains decided, of their own volition, to stop selling such emblems, at a loss in profits to themselves – the free enterprise system at its finest. But nobody is trying to tell you that you can’t fly that flag in your own yard or stick it under the gun rack on the back of your pickup or even tattoo the damn thing on your scrotum if you choose to.

And the Supreme Court decision? Though reactionaries have almost unanimously bemoaned that the Court has “redefined” marriage, it has done no such thing; what it has done is extend the right to get married to all Americans. Don’t look now, but governments at various levels have been dictating for a long time who can and can’t get married. The Supreme Court just put an end to that. You’d think that anti-guvmint fanatics would be out dancing in the streets along with Satan rather than bitching and wringing their hands over the impending End Of The World As We Know It.

Silly Narrative # 3: It’s a political correctness/ liberal tyranny thing

Ah yes, political correctness. It’s been the source of many wretched excesses, hasn’t it? Actually, it would be very hard to find a single example of supposed “political correctness” or “liberal hypocrisy” that pans out to be anything like it’s portrayed by reactionaries – who rarely if ever bother to define what political correctness is really supposed to be. We just gather that it’s something often perpetrated by them librulz – who are never really defined either. But apparently both are identified with progressives and the Democratic Party, which sometimes at least makes a pretense of being progressive.  And that makes the reactions to recent events very curious indeed.

Reactionaries are very fond of reminding us, when it suits their purposes, that it was the “Democrat” Party that was on the wrong side of slavery and the Civil War – and pretending that the two parties haven’t changed a whit in the interim.  The governor of South Carolina who spearheaded the movement to remove the Confederate flag form the capitol, Nikki Haley, is herself a Republican. (She’s also a native of her state, contrary to assertions by the eternally clueless Ann Coulter.) As is a solid majority of the state legislature that voted to back her up.

Meanwhile, many of these reactionaries would prefer to forget that there are a good many gay Republicans (though it’s hard to fathom why), and even an official organization for them, the Log Cabin Republicans. Furthermore, the Supreme Court justice who cast the tie-breaking vote to legalize gay marriage was appointed by none other than St. Ronald himself.

Silly Narrative # 4: It’s a First Amendment/ religious freedom thing

Even though nobody is saying that you can’t buy or fly a flag (see above), some people see the recent reactions to its presence as, somehow or other, an incursion against freedom of expression. Evidently, that freedom is supposed to apply only to people who love the Rebel banner, not to those who don’t.

If you think that’s batty, try this: many of them also believe that the court’s ruling damages, somehow or other , “religious freedom”.  Both reactions seem to be predicated on the notion that freedom is a finite commodity; and whatever you grant to one person, you must take from someone else. They see no irony in proclaiming that gay marriage tramples their First Amendment rights because their religious beliefs should dictate the actions of everyone; and they forget, if they ever knew, that not so terribly long ago, Good Christians believed that God gave them the right to fly their Confederate flags over their slave shacks.

Okay, we get it:  many fundamentalists hate “Sodomites”. No, wait, we mustn’t put it that way. It’s really all God’s fault – He’s the one who’s declared that they’re “sinners”, and so the fundies are just following His wishes by condemning them. Yeah, that’s the ticket. And while they can’t prove it by quoting Jesus, who never seems to have gotten around to mentioning homosexuality at all, they can pull up an out-of-context injunction from the Bronze Age code laid out in the Old Testament that seems to support their cause –while ignoring even more draconian passages from the same book, including one that instructs them to sell their daughters into slavery.

Well, guess what? If hating fags – oops, mustn’t use that word – if condemning fags unto hellfire is part of your religious bag, you’re under no obligation to stop it just on account of 9 guys and gals in black robes.  You don’t have to like gays or gaydom. You don’t have to perform or attend gay weddings. You don’t have to enter into a gay marriage yourself. You don’t even have to give up your own marriage.

Please note, however, that this does not mean you always can use religion as a shield against the responsibilities of doing your job; most employers either want you to do your duties, quit, or be dismissed. This is particularly true if your employer happens to be a government entity, because government entities in the U.S. are committed, officially at least, to non-discrimination.  You have the option to comply with that commitment or step aside and make room for someone who will. But it’s entirely your choice, not an assault on your “religious freedom”.

Here’s a helpful tip, free of charge. If you really and truly believe that gay weddings somehow infringe on your religious freedom, then maybe it’s really, really time you started shopping around for a new religion.

Silly Narrative # 5: It’s a slippery slope thing

The “slippery slope” is one of the favorite tropes of the reactionary crowd to just about anything they don’t approve of.  Rarely do any of those things actually involve a bona fide slippery slope – don’t hold your breath until wingers get their thongs in a bunch over environmental desecration, for instance. But the decision to remove the Rebel banner from government property and certain retail outlets? Totally different thing, doncha know. After all, let THEM, whoever they are, snatch away the Confederate flag, however exactly they’re doing that, and they’re certain to do the same to the flag of the Confederacy’s enemy number one, the U.S. of A. Makes sense in a very nonsensical sort of way.

The pants-pissing over gay marriage is even more intensely Jeremiah-ish. For a long time, the reactionaries have been warning that if gays are allowed the same rights and rites as us unperverted folk, it well lead to all sorts of sexual aberration: polygamy (you know, like certain right-wing Mormons), bestiality, pedophilia, marrying your sofa, etc, etc.

Some people in the Alex Jones/Glenn Beck brigade are even warning, with cobbled evidence too scant to even qualify as tenuous, that pedophiles already have been inspired to make a drive toward legitimizing their thing under the same logic that gays have legitimized theirs. Well hey, it wouldn’t be unheard of for fringe groups to try to capitalize on a court case; but it certainly doesn’t mean they’ll succeed in that laughable endeavor.  They’d have to make it past the courts. And courts, however radical, will surely understand that there is a big difference between matrimony involving two consenting adults and predatory behavior toward minors. Almost everybody understands that. Even right-wing reactionaries understand that. Don’t they?

Silly Narrative # 6: It’s a (insert inappropriate analogy) thing

Naturally, one way to convince people how terrible these two events were was to compare them to other things that people already know are terrible. We’ve already seen how some commentators suggested that “banning” the Confederate flag (which Bill O’Reilly said stands for “bravery”) will almost certainly lead to “banning” the U.S. flag. Chairman of the South Carolina League of the South Pat Hines, meanwhile, characterized the movement to remove the flag from his state’s capitol as “cultural genocide”, while a certain perennially pompous radio talk show host declared it was all about “destroying the South as a political force”.

When it comes to excoriating court rulings they don’t like, wingers have a favorite whipping boy that they frequently juxtapose with Roe V. Wade:

What if no one had acted in disobedience to the Dred Scott decision of 1857? What if the entire country had capitulated to judicial tyranny and we just said that because the Supreme Court said in 1857 said that a black person wasn’t fully human… (Mike Huckabee)

It hardly could be a worse comparison. The Dred Scott ruling (which did not declare that a black person wasn’t human, but only that he wasn’t an entitled U.S. citizen) limited the freedom of an entire class of people; while the current ruling expands the freedom of an entire class of people.

And there was a whole truckload of other inappropriate comparisons, including these:

Next we’ll get the arena and the lions, get the arena and the lions and bring them in from Tunisia.  (Michael Savage)

Essentially, this is gay Sharia … “Love” has won; now it’s time to shoot the prisoners– (columnist John Zmirak)

I fear for our country, quite frankly, because this is a spiritual 9/11. (Tim Wildmon, American Family Association)

I will not acquiesce to an imperial court any more than our Founders acquiesced to an imperial British monarch.  (Mike Huckabee again)

June 26, 2015: a date which will live in infamy. (Bryan Fischer, yet again)

What’s next? What’s next is what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah. It is just a question of how soon the wrath of God is going to come on this land. (Pat Robertson)

And of course when all else fails, there’s always a certain short dictator with a funny mustache:

…the parallels to Germany in the Thirties… when German people had no idea where this was really going to end up… (talk show host Eric Metaxas)

Are you okay with a baker saying that he’s not going to make any goods for a Nazi party rally? (Bill O’Reilly)

Another obligatory tactic is to suggest that rejection of intolerance constitutes intolerance itself, at least as intolerant as the intolerance it isn’t tolerating. Forty percent of the American public still disapproves of gay marriage, the reactionaries say, so why shouldn’t their wishes be respected too? Would they say the same if forty percent disapproved of interracial or interfaith marriage? Besides, who says their wishes aren’t being respected? Nobody’s forcing them into a gay marriage. (See above.)

Well, here we are two months later, and Obama’s storm troopers still haven’t raided anyone’s house to search for Dixie flags or hetero marriage licenses. Nobody has married their alpaca or DVD player. And God hasn’t unleashed a plague of locusts on America. In fact, the results of these two actions have been overwhelmingly positive; while there have been zero negative consequences. Get back to me in 20 years if any of that changes.

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?

Obama Speaks Truth, Obama Haters Have Meltdown

fox_obama_prayer_bkfst_2015

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”?

prayer breakfast 2

“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?

prayer breakfast 5

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.

prayer breakfast 6

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.

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.)

Heaven? For Real?

Heaven

Despite being a hardcore skeptic, I’ve always wanted to believe that there is some kind of afterlife. One lifetime is just not enough to watch Lost reruns as many times as I’d like. And speaking of great things to watch, Daniel Petrie’s 1980 film Resurrection has been on my all-time top 10 ever since it was released — for several reasons, not the least of which is that it provides a compelling, deeply moving (and mostly secular) portrait of renewal, redemption, and hope in the face of death. And I can’t think of a more haunting cinematic sequence than that of the windmill collapsing to indicate the passage of time.

But I digress. The point is that unlike a good many other people, I don’t allow myself to believe something just because it suits my fancy (hence this blog). Nonetheless, I’m always quite curious to hear alleged evidence about this thing that so many people accept merely on faith. And thus, I was quite interested in reading the book Heaven Is Real, which now has been made into a motion picture.

The book, written by Todd Burpo in 2010, recounts the experiences of his nearly 4-year-old son Colton a few years earlier.  After nearly dying during emergency surgery, Colton later reported that he’d briefly visited Heaven, where he even sat on the lap of Jesus — who he says rides, I kid you not, a rainbow-colored horse.  While many Christians have dismissed his story as absurd and even contrary to “scripture”, many others have latched onto it as “proof” that their dogmatic views on cosmogony are spot-on. Note that Colton never actually flatlined during surgery, which means that these folks maintain he visited Heaven while he was still alive.

This book is hardly unique. Other recent volumes that recount similar putative glimpses of the Great Beyond include Proof Of Heaven, 90 Minutes In Heaven,  The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven,  and, in the interests of equal time, 23 Minutes In Hell.

Nor is this a new phenomenon.  For ages, there have been accounts of what have come to be known as near death experiences (NDE).  And quite often, individuals undergoing such experiences have reported afterward that they perceived existence on some kind of spiritual plane during their period of recess from physicality.  In 1975, psychiatrist Raymond Moody published a popular book called Life After Life (not to be confused with the recent novel of the same title) which examined 150 such cases. By no means do all of these purported travelers between planes describe the same kind of itinerary. In most cases, it’s much more vague and general than the Colton cruise: just a sense of white lights, love, and sometimes the presence of lost loved ones.

Since I began on a personal note, let me mention  that I’ve been well acquainted with two individuals who had undergone clinical death at some point in the past. Both convinced me that at the very least, their experiences were profound and life-altering. Neither’s recollections of their perceptions were of a religious bent. One became a progressive Christian, though she admitted she had no idea why she felt drawn to do so, and the other eventually became a Sufi. Both were broad-minded, compassionate, dynamic personalities who credited their NDEs with bringing focus and perspective to their lives.

Then there was another of a much briefer acquaintance, who apparently had been a Christian even before her episode, yet she still did not indicate she glimpsed anything like “Heaven”. And while her incident seemed to have transformed her positively in some respects, she still was quite judgmental toward certain groups of people, particularly gays. It’s hard to see how a genuinely spiritual experience could leave a person bigoted; the bigotry was particularly striking in her case because she was African-American.

It appears that what people see when they die — or at least when they temporarily “die” — hinges on their personal beliefs, or at least on the belief paradigm they feel most at home with. And Todd Burpo, Colton’s father, is — surprise — a Christian minister. The child grew up in a home saturated with fundamentalist dogma. What did you expect him to see when he momentarily checked out of his body?

He was also a big fan of Star Wars action figures. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he reported there would be a big battle ahead in which the Blessed Ones in Heaven would clash with the Forces Of Evil using swords. What kind of paradise is it if you get drafted to go go war? With a sword, no less?

Discussing the book’s popularity in The Washington Post, Susan Jacoby writes:

What is truly disturbing about this book’s huge commercial success is that it attests to the prevalence of unreason among vast numbers of Americans. (The book is way down in the ranks on Amazon.com in the United Kingdom.) The Americans buying the book are the same people fighting the teaching of evolution in public schools. They are probably the same people who think they can reduce the government deficit without either paying higher taxes or cutting the military budget, Social Security and Medicare benefits. In this universe of unreason, two plus two can equal anything you want and heaven is not only real but anything you want it to be. At age four, the inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality is charming. Among American adults, widespread identification with the mind of a preschooler is scary.

This “universe of unreason” that Jacoby bemoans seems to have three major root causes: (1) the nearly universal desire for immortality in some fashion; (2) confirmation bias — the common tendency to select those facts which support one’s convictions and discard those that don’t, and (3) the extremely pervasive, extremely influential Christian fundamentalist arrogance that presumes to know not only how everyone should live their lives, but how everyone will live after their lives are completed. She is talking about how absurd the whole “Heaven Is Real” phenomenon is on the face of it; but Christians often have a response to such a criticism: things that seem absurd or improbable or nonsensical to us are just things that are beyond our limited human understanding, yet they fit perfectly within the divine scheme of things. But if you actually read the book — and do your homework — you’ll find plenty of details that validate Jacoby’s alarm over the gullibility of the American public.

For one thing, young Colton mentions that he saw the nail scars in Jesus’ hands. Why shouldn’t he? We all know that the resurrected Jesus had nail scars in his hands, because there are countless paintings, poems, songs and sermons that tell us so. Trouble is, it’s highly unlikely that victims were crucified through their hands, because under normal conditions the weight of the body would have caused the nails to rip right through. Most scholars concur that the nails were driven through the wrist instead. But “nail-scarred palms” or “nail-scarred hands” just sounds so much cooler.

Colton also says everyone in Heaven has wings and halos. In other words, we all are transformed into angels after we die, provided we have a reservation in the upper suite. And we all know that angels have wings and halos, right? Well, if they do, they’ve only done so since the Middle Ages; the Bible doesn’t say anything about angels having either one. (These iconic traditions may have started with someone confusing angels with cherubim and seraphim, which are winged critters of a different order. As for the halos… well, probably just visual metaphor, perhaps of pagan origin.)

One interesting bit of “corroboration” of Colton’s story is his take on the likeness of Jesus. After rejecting several portraits his father had shown him as having something “wrong” with them, he zeroed in on one that he insisted was “right”, which his father took to mean that it was the spitting image. The portrait in question was painted by art prodigy Akiane Kramarik (pictured) when she was eight.

Prince-of-Peace

 

Akiane also had visions of paradise when she was 3 (apparently the spirit world likes to get them while they’re young) but without a near-death experience; after which she began putting her visions on canvas, including her take on what Jesus of Nazareth looked like. And because she was born into an atheist household, the believers insist that she must have obtained her inspiration straight from the source, without outside influence. Which is utter poppycock. It’s unthinkable in this day and age that any child could possibly be unexposed to Christian iconography (except perhaps in such drastically totalitarian societies as Iran or North Korea). What’s much more likely is that because of her godless upbringing, she was unexposed to the Westernized likenesses of Jesus that have become standard in American culture, and somehow tuned in to the more authentic Middle Eastern features that Jesus would have had; and that Colton either also picked up on this or just singled out her portrait because it was different.

The emphasis on the portrait as “proof” of the accuracy of  traditional Christian set dressing illustrates a common problem with dogmatists: the presumption that any unexplained phenomenon can have only one possible explanation — namely the one that suits their beliefs. Many individuals (including Colton) who have undergone near-death experiences subsequently have conveyed information that they supposedly could not have obtained except through a transcendent out-of-body experience (e.g., supposedly overhearing a distant conversation or recounting an encounter with a long-deceased relative identified from a decades-old photograph the subject supposedly has never seen). But this discounts the extraordinary capacity of the subconscious mind to assimilate information from only the most fleeting exposure. In addition to that faulty conclusion, the belief about Colton catching glimpses of Heaven commits two more: (a) that if he had a genuine transcendent experience, it necessarily validates his account of Heaven, and (b) that even if we could grant his visit to Heaven was reasonably authentic, it necessarily validates Christian dogma in general.

Maybe most of us do want to believe that we will live forever. Maybe there is even some respectable (if less than airtight) evidence that this is true. But when it comes to convincing hardcore skeptics of the reality of something on the order of the traditional concept of “Heaven”, it’s going to take a hell of a lot more proof than this.

 

Gay Activism and the Christian Persecution Complex: the Mask of “Religious Freedom”

Arizona_SB-1062

If you live in the U.S., you’ve no doubt heard that the state of Arizona recently issued one of its periodic warnings to the rest of the world not to drink its water — this time in the form of SB 1062, a bill that would have allowed businesses to deny service to gays for “religious” reasons. The measure was vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer, and it’s no big secret that she likely did so on the basis of economic rather than moral concerns. And as you might expect, fundamentalists now claim that her veto was a slap in the holier-than-thou face of “religious freedom”. Some even refer to the torpedoed bill as the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” — as if religious freedom needed to be “restored”. As always, the spin is that prohibiting discrimination against other people by religious fanatics constitutes “religious discrimination”.

“Religious freedom” is a very predictable defense that some people offer for bigoted behavior. It’s also a very bullshit defense, because it can be used, and has been used, to mask just about anything and everything — from slavery and racism to child marriage to capital punishment to genocide to beating the crap out of little kids. But while true religious freedom means that you have the right to belong to whatever religion you choose (or, we hastily and emphatically add, to no religion at all), it doesn’t automatically mean that you have the right to practice whatever any religion preaches; it’s a case-by-case consideration that always must balance the freedom to indulge in a behavior with its impact on other people. Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins. You’re perfectly free to adhere to a faith that maintains some sectors of the population are second-class citizens (or “sinners” in fundie lingo) but that doesn’t mean you’re entitled to actually treat some people as second-class citizens.

Contrary to what the “religious freedom” crowd might have you believe, the United States government has always provided special dispensation to persons with strong religious convictions. Among other things, this has appeared in the form of exemption from military service, from property taxes, and now from certain provisions of the Affordable Care Act. Since such programs require mass participation to be effective, allowing some individuals to opt out places an undue burden on those who do participate; yet this has been deemed perfectly legal and constitutionally defensible from day one. Far from being the victims of discrimination and persecution, as they so often proclaim, Christians have been and still are the beneficiaries of reverse discrimination and even extraordinary privilege.

Likewise, the government has been, if not supportive, at least indifferent to, misguided and misinformed efforts by pharmacists to deny women access to medication on “moral” grounds. Many states have even passed legislation specifically authorizing such campaigns. And as despicable as it may be to contribute to the inconvenience, distress and even suffering of individuals in need of medical services in order to bolster one’s sense of moral superiority, it appears that such a position does not clash with constitutional ideals. Why? Because the “moralists” generally are tendering smug condemnation of individuals for their actions rather than smug condemnation for their demographic groups. (We say “generally” because in some cases women are prescribed birth control for medical conditions rather than for contraception. And we can’t help noting that sometimes, as in the case of Hobby Lobby, the “morality” dictated by Christian arrogance takes a backseat to Mammon.)

Homosexuality is another matter altogether. While the anti-gay factions try to portray homosexuality as something one does rather than something one is — to depict being gay as a “lifestyle” that one chooses — the fact is that one has no more control over one’s sexuality than one does over race, gender or age. That makes discrimination against gays as much prohibited by law as discrimination against Asians or women.  Interestingly — and ironically — there has always been a virulent, overreaching protection against religious discrimination — even though religion, unlike age, race, nationality or sexual orientation, is entirely voluntary.

If someone operated a business that did not allow Christians on the premises, that would be religious discrimination. But it’s perfectly fine to prohibit religious activities — e.g., baptism, foot washing, pot smoking, circumcision, or snake handling. Similarly, a restaurant certainly could forbid patrons from engaging in overt displays of amorousness, whether gay or straight. But just because you can prevent customers from brushing their hair or applying makeup or wearing bikinis at the table doesn’t necessarily mean that you can bar women from entering.

Why should the government get involved at all? Why can’t we just adopt a Libertarianoid invisible hand policy and let those customers whose business isn’t wanted in one place just take their trade elsewhere (which they probably will anyway)? Get the government off our backs and let the markets decide. Live and let live. Cool and groovy, baby.

Ah, if only things really could work that way. But alas, ideological solutions work perfectly only in a perfect world. And in this particular world, people will not conduct themselves consistently in a civil manner if left to their own devices. Of course, it would be equally fallacious to suppose that government intervention is always the best answer. But it is, all too often, the only answer — it is frequently the only available mechanism by which the best of humanity can pull everyone else up, or at least prevent the worst from dragging everyone else down. Without it, we risk sliding into what “moralists” like to call (at least when condemning the actions of other people) a “slippery slope”.

By allowing some businesses to discriminate against a demographic sector, we invite an avalanche of such exclusions, which very well could result in a situation such that this group and others would find it difficult if not impossible to obtain certain services at all — at least in the “red” states. This is discrimination, oppression and persecution, no matter how many Bible verses you quote while doing it. And there is the very real risk that such exclusionary discrimination will escalate into persecutional discrimination and even violence. This isn’t just idle speculation; it’s gleaning from the shameful pages of history.

Many people are alive today who can remember when African-Americans were not allowed to attend the same schools, eat in the same restaurants, sit on the same park benches, or drink from the same water fountains as Caucasians.  It was bad enough that black baseball players were confined to “Negro leagues” instead of major leagues; what made it even more undignified is that after playing their hearts out in a game and traveling by bus to their next destination, they often were denied lodging at hotels, and even the use of restroom facilities en route. And even worse still, they were subjected to endless harassment, threats and physical attacks.

And guess what? “Religious freedom” was the rallying cry of many who indulged in these evils. Going back even farther, slave owners used select biblical passages to justify the ownership, oppression and brutalization of fellow human beings of a different complexion. (And I won’t go into detail lest I be accused — quite inaccurately — of running into Godwin’s Law, but there was also a Christian ethnocentric dogma underlying Nazism.)

But things are very different now, you say? You bet. And if you believe that the changes just “happened”, you’re living in cloud cuckoo land. Social evolution is generally much too gradual to effect such a drastic difference in such a relatively short time. For kids growing up today, it may be hard to imagine there was ever a time when racism was so prevalent, so officially sanctioned. That’s because we’ve had a couple of generations for equality (relative if not total) to become the norm. But before that, there were many, many generations in which blatant, extreme racism was the norm. And overturning that norm required legislative, judicial and executive intercession — goaded, to be sure, by persistent and courageous activism.

Today, “faggot” is the new “nigger”; gays are the target of choice for Good Christians (and others) who feel that they absolutely must target someone, and no longer can get away with overt racism. In the past few years, American civilization (or what passes for it) has made tremendous strides toward respect and equality for gays. Now, the legislators of Arizona, among others, are trying to turn back the calendar. If they succeed, there almost certainly will be more Matthew Sheperds. And more Fred Phelpses saying they got what they deserved.

If even one person criticizes the religious right for its bigotry — or makes a vitriolic comment about them even in tasteless jest — then that individual will become an icon of “religious persecution” . And, of course, “proof” that “liberals” are intolerant and hateful. Meanwhile, when World Vision (which, lest we forget, is itself a Christian organization) announced that it would begin, in one measure at least, treating gays like human beings, it was bullied into reversing that decision by the reactions of hundreds of thousands of Good Christians outraged by its support for “immorality”. This even entailed cutting off financial support for World Vision’s programs that fight global poverty and greatly benefit children.

And what do we call this kind of reaction? Christian Love, of course. With a heavy dose of “religious freedom”

(See previous posts on Gay Activism and the Christian Persecution Complex:  Playing Chikin, A Tale of Two Legal Judgments,  The Kirk Cameron/ Anita Bryant Delusion, and Ducking Responsibility.)