I answer my detractors: Part I

A judge permitted this Catholic statue to remain on federal
land in Montana because it "does not reflect a religious purpose."

Every atheist who criticizes religion is criticized for those criticisms on two counts. (1) If you don’t believe in God, religion is none of your business. (2) You don't criticize every form of religion equally, so you're obviously ignorant of the diversity within the religious community. I will use my next two posts to address these criticisms.

To argue that the only people affected by religion are those who are religious is to display an astonishing degree of ignorance when not a day passes on which people who aren’t religious or who belong to the wrong religion are assaulted, beaten, beheaded, blown to pieces, censured, cursed, disowned, fined, fired, imprisoned, molested, ostracized, raped, ridiculed, run out of town, shot, stoned, taxed, threatened, or otherwise persecuted in the name of one God of Love or another. Granted, Moslems commit the worst of the atrocities, but religious oppression exists everywhere that religion exists. Even so, I’ll limit the rest of this post to the harm done by the dominant political face of modern American Christianity, primarily as it relates to federal and state government.

(1) In 1954 (the same year that “under God” was put in the Pledge of Allegiance, and two years before “In God We Trust” was put on money), Congress enacted 26 U.S. Code § 107. This law has been a boon to “ministers of the Gospel” because it exempts them from paying income taxes on their housing expenses. It has likewise been a boon to churches because they can get by with paying less to clergy. The rest of us currently pay an additional $700-million in taxes to make up the deficit. Why were members of the clergy given such a break? Because it was the era of the nuclear arms race and the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the government wanted to curry God’s favor while standing strong against “Godless Communism.”

(2) Churches avoid taxes by calling themselves charities. I say calling themselves charities because they enjoy significant perks over other charities, perks that cast doubt upon whether they really are charities. For example, unlike other charities, churches don’t have to pay an application fee to apply for their income tax exemption, and they don’t have to submit a yearly Form 990 to prove that they’re actually using their money to help anyone. Even in cases of obvious abuse, there is little the IRS can do because Congress enacted “heightened procedures” that make auditing a church so complicated that it rarely occurs.

(3) October 5, will mark the sixth annual “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” a day on which approximately 1,500 pastors openly violate Internal Revenue Code 501(c)(3) which prohibits charitable organizations from engaging in political campaigning. These clergy invariably support conservative candidates and conservative causes, and many of them send videos of their sermons to the IRS, confident that the IRS will do what the government usually does in regard to the crimes of the church, which is to ignore them.

(4) To comply with IRS Code 501(c)(3), Congressional lobbying on the part of churches must be “insubstantial,” but churches are free to hold this rule in contempt because “insubstantial” isn’t defined, so the IRS finds it difficult to hold them accountable even if it had the will and a Congressional mandate to do so.

(5) Churches and church-run organizations get preferential treatment in regard to how they treat their employees. A church can fire you for holding the wrong religious beliefs, political alliances, or moral values. It can also deny you insurance benefits for birth control and abortion and, conceivably, for blood transfusions in the case of Jehovah's Witnesses and psychiatric counseling in the case of Scientologists, etc. Now, Christians who own businesses that are in no way connected to a church are claiming the same privileges in the name of religious freedom.

(6) Church leaders have long been given preferential treatment in criminal investigations, which is partly why child molestation by clergy is hard to prove. Another grave problem is that Catholic leaders commonly use the 700-year-old doctrine of “mental reservation” to justify lying to investigators.

(7) Christian lying in matters pertaining to state-church separation is so common as to be expected. For example, in 1964, a 51-foot cross was erected atop Skinner Butte Park, a public park adjacent to downtown Eugene, Oregon, where I live. In 1969, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that the cross violated both the state and federal constitutions in that it represented government endorsement of the Christian religion. In 1970, the city held an election in which the cross was designated “a memorial to the veterans of all wars in which the United States has participated,” despite the fact that the cross hadn’t been intended as a war memorial, or that non-Christian veterans would no more want to be represented by a cross than Christian veterans would want to be represented by the Star of David. The cross was finally removed in 1997, 28 years after the Supreme Court ruling. Such cases happen again and again and again, year after year after year. The fact that so many Christians find it so easy to lie so blatantly about matters that don't even pass the straight-face-test, serve as a major reason for my distrust of Christian morality.

(8) Many state governments favor the church. For example, Mississippi recently passed Senate Bill 2633 which requires schools to provide for prayer in classes and at school events. It also passed Senate Bill 2681, which requires that “In God We Trust” be put on the 216-year-old state seal, and that legalizes discrimination against homosexuals—or anyone else—in the name of religion. Mississippi doesn’t appear to care that the U.S. Supreme Court threw out school prayer in 1962 and that various federal laws prohibit either government or private enterprise from favoring some groups over other groups. For example, you can’t legally give discounts to those who bring their church bulletins to your restaurant on Sunday, nor can you refuse to rent an apartment to atheists or gay people. Unfortunately, such laws are commonly and openly ignored, particularly in the Bible Belt, and if you complain, you can expect your job, your property, your friendships, your person, and even your pets, to be at risk.

(9) Mississippi’s Senate Bill 2681 was named The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, because religious people commonly regard any and all limits on their ability to force their religion on others as being a violation of their own freedom. When I was a boy in Mississippi, Scripture was used to deny accommodations for black people with the result that it could be difficult for a black person to find a place to eat, sleep, or use the toilet. The bigotry continues, only the faces of the oppressed have changed. I could give similar examples of laws from other Southern states, laws that are clearly meant to reward those whom the state considers desirable (Christians) while punishing those it considers undesirable (the rest of us). I think it likely that most politicians would agree with the first president Bush: “No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered as patriots.”

(10) The church as a whole has consistently opposed the expansion of human rights. This was true when Native Americans were being forced onto reservations, and it was true during the time of slavery, integration, workers’ rights, women’s suffrage, Japanese internment, and the social reforms of the New Deal. It was and still is true in regard to the modern feminist movement, health care reform, abortion rights, homosexual rights, marijuana reform, and assisted suicide. Although some believers have been at the forefront of the struggle for human rights, religion as a whole has ever and always been dragged in the direction of freedom and knowledge while screaming Bible verses to support its ignorance and oppression. After all, the Bible abounds with verses that support genocide, slavery, racism, and sexism; and although it is silent on abortion, workers’ rights, euthanasia, assisted suicide, health care reform, the rights of children, and other advancements that didn’t exist when it was written; in America, at least, the church as a whole has never hesitated to claim that God opposed these advancements. 

(11) Where religion goes, so goes poverty, disease, crime, and ignorance. This can be seen by comparing the quality of life standards among religious versus non-religious countries as well as among religious versus non-religious states. I will grant that the presence of religion in an area that is crime-ridden and impoverished—aka the Bible Belt in this country—does not in itself prove that religion is the cause of these problems, but surely states in which the majority of the populace considers Christianity to be of major importance in their lives and who believe that they are under the personal guidance of God’s Holy Spirit should be able to get something right from time to time, that is if religion really is a salutary influence. Unfortunately, their contributions to world betterment are primarily limited to: sanitizing history textbooks; restricting labor unions; erecting religious monuments on government property; passing laws that force abortion clinics out of business; making sure that every public school student gets a free Bible; praying to Jesus at any and all public events; forcing biology teachers to teach “Intelligent Design”; gerrymandering voting districts in favor of Republicans; passing voting laws in favor of Republicans; trampling the rights of homosexuals and non-Christians; reducing or eliminating government benefits to the poor and disabled; and passing laws against passing laws that limit how much fat and sugar burger joints can put in their products. Those who favor such measures invariably consider Jesus and themselves to be on the same page about these and every other public issue. 

For every example of religious bullying I have given in this post, I could have given scores of others, but how many does one need to be convinced that the dominant political face of American Christianity isn’t dedicated to loving ones neighbors but to controlling them? As with Moslems who favor Sharia law, it is a form of Christianity that aims to curry God’s favor through purification, and the purification of the masses can only be conducted through intimidation, coercion, and violence. Jesus said, “He who is not with me is against me,” and millions of his American followers have taken such divisive verses to heart at the expense of his more salutary sentiments. Oddly enough, American Christianity seems unaware that its own values have changed radically over the last several decades. When I was a boy—in the ‘50s and ‘60s—many if not most Christians believed that divorced people were unfit to teach or preach; that God opposed racial mixing (much less interracial marriage); that a Catholic president would do whatever the pope ordered; that it was appropriate to refer to people born out of wedlock as bastards their whole lives through; and that the Bible forbade gambling, tattoos, and anything that was sexually explicit. They used Scripture to prove that blacks were inferior to whites, that homosexual sex should be a felony, and that women shouldn’t wear a man’s pants or take a man’s job. It might be claimed that America’s God is “the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow,” but his values and demands have changed radically over the decades, especially as they affect behaviors that younger Christians regard as acceptable.

The current political and social climate is a mixed bag for atheists. On the one hand, religion is becoming increasingly allied with government, but on the other, the population as a whole is becoming increasingly secular. As I see it, the reason that American Christianity has become more militant since the attack on 9/11 and the election of a black president with an un-American and un-Christian name, is precisely because of its decreasing popular support. I wish I could say that we’re seeing its death throes, but the religious climate can change rapidly and dramatically. If global warming should continue to cause crop failures, massive forest fires, and frequent large storms of one kind or another; or if terrorists come up with more devastating ways to attack us; or if tension with Russia or China becomes a serious threat; maybe we’ll go back to the hyper-religious McCarthy era. I’ve seen enough changes occur at such a fast and unexpected rate that I don’t trust anything to last or to be predictable, whether its for good or ill.