of Reason Publications
Dedicated to attaining an Age of Reason in the
of rational thought to society’s laws, ethics and beliefs,
and to entering upon an age of reason in our individual lives.
Throughout the course of the twentieth century, human knowledge
increased at an astounding, explosive pace. Newtonian physics
gave way to relativity and quantum mechanics. The very concept of
causality itself had to be rethought in the face of Heisenberg's
uncertainty principle, and Kurt Godel shook the foundations of
mathematics and logic. As Darwin's theory of natural selection
found confirmation in the blossoming of the science of genetics, a
veritable flood of fossil discoveries filled in most of the gaps in the
evolutionary history of tetrapods, birds, whales, humans, and many
other types of organisms. The sequencing of genes and genomes
made it possible to refine our understanding of the evolutionary
interrelations of microbes as well as those of the plants and animals
of ordinary human experience. Chimpanzees were found to be 98.5%
human. The conclusion that we live in an unplanned, insentient
universe became ineluctable.
Discoveries in biochemistry, physiology, and medicine transformed biology from a collector's hobby into a scientific discipline that by the end of the century came incredibly close to understanding the nature of life itself. They changed medicine from a mysterious profession that could be seriously challenged by the mumbo-jumbo of Christian Science practitioners into a branch of science that understands the biological basis of infectious diseases, the biochemical and genetic bases of cancer, and the neuro-physiological underpinnings of mental illness. The human mind began to explain itself to itself.
During the same century, human achievements became more and more impressive as the knowledge gained from pure research found practical applications. Our species went bodily from Kitty Hawk to the moon and vicariously journeyed to other planets—even sending a probe outside the boundaries of the solar system into interstellar space. The discovery of antibiotics and improved vaccines, the development of sophisticated imaging and diagnostic systems, and the refinement of surgical equipment and techniques transformed medicine into a life-saving science without equal in the history of humanity. The average life expectancy of Americans after 1900 increased by more than thirty years, climbing to 77.2 years in 2001. The increase is nearly the entire life span of the composer Franz Schubert, who died at the age of 31!
Gods have ruled only the unknown ever since the evolution of language created names for them. Gods have never been needed in spheres of human activity where knowledge was sufficient to make accurate predictions of the future state of the system in question. Of course, at the dawn of civilization ignorance was the norm and gods and goddesses of all kinds never had to look for work. They had to heat the sun, send the rain, hurl lightning bolts, sprout seeds, ripen fruit, and form each fetus in the womb.
Steadily but surely, however, the advance of science and other fields of human knowledge shrank the domain of the unknown to ever smaller dimensions. As answers were found for more and more questions to which the answer formerly had been "God," the gods of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and other religions were sent into the ranks of the unemployed. Today, there is nothing worth mentioning left for gods to do. Even church steeples are protected by Benjamin Franklin, and storm gods are out of work because of meteorology.
A Paradox Arises
During the second half of the twentieth century, as knowledge of
reality was growing, a paradox was developing in America. As
mainline religions were shrinking and relinquishing ground to science,
the most ignorant and primitive forms of religion not only were
surviving, they were actually thriving. Disinformed
fundamentalisms of every type were gaining in power and threatening to
inaugurate a new Dark Age. Snake handlers, Pentecostalists,
Jehovah's Witnesses, Baptists, Mormons, Latinate Catholics,
Scientologists, and faith-healing fakirs in alligator-skin boots were
take control of the superstition industry—the biggest business in the
history of civilization. The paradox was stunning: the technology
of the twentieth century CE was being used to propagate the scientific
misunderstanding of the twentieth century BCE.
As a result, America and much of the world now is being inundated by a Noah's Flood of disinformation. Truth is being swallowed up and lost in a sea of superstition. For every school that tries to advance human knowledge and learning there are at least a dozen churches, synagogues, or temples that are trying to nullify that understanding. One searches the broadcast media almost in vain to find non-religious, scientifically sound programming. Radio has been lost as a vehicle of enlightenment, and television is nearly as hopeless. Preachers, preachers, everywhere: nor any one can think!
Although the poll results are suspect, it appears that a majority of Americans, despite the explosion of scientific knowledge in their country, either believe in creationism or at least think that it should be taught along with real science in biology classes. Across the board, scientific knowledge in America is at an abominably low level. A frightful fraction of Americans do not know that the earth goes around the sun rather than vice-versa. Giordano Bruno's murder by the Inquisition has been forgotten along with the facts for which he fought.
Whence comes the scientific ignorance of America? Space does not permit exploration of the myriad ways in which federal and state politics have harmed education and impeded scientific discovery. To be sure, an Evangelist-in-Chief in the White House can hardly be expected to encourage learning, and reactionary religious justices of the Supreme Court of the United States cannot be expected to be respecters of truth. But demented governmental officials are only symptoms, not the disease itself. The source of infection—no surprise here—is without doubt the organized superstitions that have seized control of the media. While I have already mentioned the baleful condition of the broadcast media, I wish in this essay to focus mostly on the print medium—the medium that had its inauspicious beginning in the printing of bibles.
What Christians Are Reading
As an Atheist activist, it is part of my job to know what the opponents
of reason are thinking—or at least what they are doing that takes
place of thinking. Over the years, the best tool I have found for
accomplishing this rather onerous task is a book catalog—the
Christian Book Distributors (CBD) catalog....
Suffer the Little Children
Considering the immeasurable importance of inoculating the young with
the virus of religiosity, it is not surprising that CBD has a separate
catalog for Christian home-schoolers—believers who will stop at
nothing to prevent their children's discovery of reality. In this
catalog one can find 'textbooks' for all subjects that have been
sanitized against secular-humanist heresies and are deemed safe for
children of all ages. Parents who have been able to insulate
their children from the secular world through their elementary-school
and middle-school years can find such useful curriculum aids as Foundations For Living: Studies in the
Christian Worldview. The catalog exhorts them to "Equip
your high schoolers to respond biblically to the tough issues that they
will encounter after graduation. Offering practical instruction
on topics such as man's purpose in the world, the Christian family and
roles within it, dating and courtship, education, art, and politics,
this in-depth series guides today's young adults to live productive
lives - and shapes them into the Christian servants and leaders of the
In the culture to which the CBD catalog panders, few things are more
important than defending the faith. Of course, the more
irrational the faith, the greater the defense required. Defending
faith against the facts of the real world has never been easy, and help
in the form of books on apologetics has always been in demand for
believers who are short in the fantasy department and have to fight a
proclivity to think rationally. Successful apologetics books are
written so well that otherwise sane and rational believers are
completely taken in by what passes for reasoning and, after some amount
of practice, will proceed to try out their arguments on hapless
friends, neighbors, school board members, and even well-educated
members of society.
In the CBD catalog before me, pride of place is given to The Case for Christ, written by the apologist Lee Strobel. "If you were a journalist, how would you investigate the hottest news story in history? Join award-winning reporter Strobel as he probes the life of Jesus Christ. Interviewing 13 of the country's top Christian scholars, he ferrets out incontestable historical, scientific, and psychiatric evidence to support the claims of Jesus. A unique approach to apologetics!" In this book you can examine the mockery Strobel makes of my own argument that Nazareth was uninhabited at the turn of the era and you can speculate about how uninformed a fool I must be to write the stuff I write.
It is perhaps to be expected that this catalog does not carry Earl Doherty's Challenging the Verdict: A Cross-Examination of Lee Strobel's 'The Case for Christ'. You'll have to go to Amazon.com to order this meticulous, point-by-point refutation of Strobel's apologies. Further to be expected, the catalog does carry Strobel's The Case for Faith: "Why does God permit evil? Why do some prayers go unanswered? Why has God allowed the church to engage in brutality and hypocrisy? Tough questions demand convincing answers. Join award-winning journalist Strobel as he once again journeys across the country, challenging philosophers, theologians, and ordinary believers to defend their faith. The evidence he uncovers may surprise you!" Indeed [it] will.
Creationists never tire to tell us that their work is scientific and
not religious. The developers of 'Scientific Creationism' and
more recently 'Intelligent Design' eschew religious language as much as
possible and sport a veneer of scientific language and
appearance. The cat is out of the bag, however, thanks to the CBD
catalog. On the page headed "Defending the Faith" and "More on
Apologetics" we find creationism under all disguises correctly located
and identified for what it really: religious apologetics.
Michael J. Behe, the biochemist (really!) who almost single-handedly started the intelligent-design (ID) revolution in creationist politics, has for sale Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, a book that brings the nineteenth-century arguments about 'design' in nature down to the sub-cellular level. Whereas back then creationists argued that such things as half a wing or half an eye could not even be imagined as adaptive (and thus selectable by natural selection), convincing explanations of organ evolution have forced Behe to retreat down to the cytological and biochemical levels to find yet-unexplained conundrums. Blood clotting systems and the flagellar motors of bacteria are now claimed to be "irreducibly complex," and thus evidence of an intelligent designer. Since Behe can't see how these systems could have evolved from other pre-existing systems, his conceit leads him to assert that no one else will ever understand these systems either.
It is not surprising that we do not yet know how these systems evolved, even though we are closing in fast on such understanding. These systems are still being mapped at the molecular level and we don't have a full picture of what exactly we have to explain. (For perspective, consider the fact that I myself am older than the science of biochemistry as a separate academic discipline!) We are disputing at the leading edge of science, the boundary line where everything on the other side is unknown and where every newly discovered fact raises new questions of mechanisms and origins. Without a doubt, however, all these discoveries are informed by Darwinian insights and are, one after the other, being explained in evolutionary terms.
Evolutionary theory has great heuristic value; that is, it makes useful predictions and leads to discovery. By contrast, Behe's god is the quintessential 'god of the gaps.' It leads to no discoveries, and as each gap in knowledge is narrowed, the god shrinks proportionally. As each gap is filled, Behe will have to go back to the vanguard of discovery to find a new unanswered question raised by evolutionary scientists. Then, for a time, he will be able to proclaim, "This system is irreducibly complex and can't be explained in evolutionary terms." But Behe will probably still be alive when that problem is solved, and he will have to recycle his claim with yet another newly uncovered conundrum.
It may be that the editors of the CBD catalog are a bit embarrassed to
include books about 'spiritual warfare' in their inventory.
Nowhere do they explain exactly what spiritual warfare is, nor do they
have even one explanatory blurb pushing the twenty-one titles listed
under the heading "Spiritual Warfare." Fortunately, I am
something of an authority on this subject—due to the fact that last
year I debated a Christian college professor whose doctoral
dissertation devoted hundreds of pages to the subject. Naturally,
I had to read the whole verschluggene
treatise before debating the fellow. Like many true Christians,
he believes in what may be dubbed 'jinni-geography.' Every
particular region of the world, it seems, is being plagued by a
specific demon or devil whose job is to stymie the efforts of Christ's
salvation army. These all can be defeated, first, by 'discerning
the name and antisocial security number of each demon in charge of each
region. Then, once the jinnis have been identified, their names
can be used magically in prayers and exorcisms. In the darkest
days of the Dark Ages, no superstition surpassed this one for
silliness, fatuousness, or just plain ignorance.
Among the titles offered to legions of clueless Christian soldiers are How to Cast Out Demons, by Doris M. Wagner; What the Bible Says About Spiritual Warfare, by Warren E. Wiersbe; Warfare Prayer, by C. Peter Wagner; The Handbook for Spiritual Warfare (Revised and Updated), by Dr. Ed Murphy; Deliverance from Evil Spirits, by Francis MacNutt (how appropriate a name for this author!); Unmasking the Jezebel Spirit, by John Paul Jackson; Kingdom Warfare: Prayer, Spiritual Warfare, and the Ministry of Angels, by Jack Hayford; and Preparing for Battle: A Spiritual Warfare Workbook, by Mark I. Bubeck.
These theorists and some of the leaders in George W. Bush's military have been busy of late 'discerning the powers' in Iraq and are believed by many to be doing a far more important job than that done by our troops on the ground. More impoartant even than our air force, these mentally hapless hoplites constitute the spiritual Luftwaffe that our president is counting on to turn the tide in the Near East. Now that Saddam Hussein has been captured, it will be possible for these spiritual intelligence experts to determine for certain which evil spirits have taken possession of the demonized ex-ruler. While rationalists must perforce consider all this to be absurd and ridiculous, they must at the same time realize the grave importance of the fact that many of their disinformed elected officials and military leaders take all this as seriously as body-counts.
When Ronald Reagan was yet governor of California, he expressed his
belief in the Book of Revelation publicly, indicating that he believed
he was living in the 'end times' foretold in that apocalyptic
book. When he became president, I lived in constant fear that he
might at any minute decide that it was necessary to catalyze the advent
of Armageddon. If God wants the world to end in our time, how
could any God-fearing president act contrary to the divine will?
Would that red telephone be in his office if the Good Lord hadn't
planned it? Would Armageddon become a self-fulfilling
prophecy? If any
Bible-believing Christian is sitting in the Oval Office, will Armageddon become a
Reagan was the darling of reactionary Christians everywhere, and his belief in the importance of biblical prophecy greatly amplified an already loud clamor emanating from true believers who claimed that everything happening in our world was predicted by the ancient authors of their sacred books. This prophetic chorus has continued to grow in volume up to the present day, and it is now the opinion of a considerable number of very high officials in Washington. In the case of the president himself, it is hazardous to try to separate public pretense from private profession. He does appear genuinely to believe that he has been chosen by the god of his Bible to invade Iraq and depose its demonic leaders. Where might he (or the spiritual powers behind his throne) have gotten such ideas?
Possible answers can be found in the CBD catalog. Consider Dr. John Walvoord's best-selling Armageddon, Oil and the Middle East Crisis - Revised. "Armageddon is closer than we think, believes noted Bible scholar Walvoord! Explaining how biblical prophecies are now being fulfilled in such events as the Arab/Israeli conflict, Walvoord prepares you for the final drama leading to the second coming of Christ. Are you ready? Walvoord offers a plan of salvation so you can be sure." While rationalists must be amusedly skeptical of a prophetic book that has had to be revised, legions of true believers at all levels of our society have taken this book quite seriously and are trying to figure out exactly where they fit into this divinely designed scenario.
Once again, rationalists may laugh at the whole concept of prophecy, with its fundamental assumption that Yahweh or Jesus wasn't really speaking to the people the Bible says he was addressing but rather was talking to people who would live thousands of years later in lands yet unimagined. It is no laughing matter, however, to consider the danger inherent in a world whose leaders and lobbyists not only actually believe such nonsense but think, moreover, that the future is not going to be the logical result of actions we have taken in the past and present, but rather was all planned out by a pre-scientific society that wouldn't have had the faintest idea of what to do with "a 6-panel foldout panoramic view of God's plan for the ages." Belief that the future of human society not only has been determined by causes outside human control but is unalterable by human actions is noxious. It can only foster societal paralysis. No true believer can be expected to do the slightest thing to prevent a real-world Armageddon—hence my alarm years ago during the Reagan regime. Of all the disinformation leaked to credulous American governmental 'intelligence' personel by all the various insurgent theocracies now contending for control of this land of ours, none is as pernicious as the notion that the Bible can foretell the future without the need of science or rational actions of any kind.
I have to confess that I get the CBD catalog for more reasons than just
keeping abreast of what the Fundies are up to. As a scientific
student of the bibles of Judaism and Christianity, I possess a very
large library of scholarly resources for studying those
bibles....Unfortunately, young scholars will be impeded in their
inquest into the nature of the biblical texts by all the nonsense that
blights the pages [of CBD] under the headings "Biblical Studies," "How
to Study the Bible," "Bible Studies," and "Bible Reference Works."
It must be said at the outset that there is almost nothing of any scientific value in those pages. That is, there is very little representing objective and impartial scholarship in them. A great deal has been discovered about the origins and evolution of the various biblical texts, but you won't find much of it for sale here. To the contrary, you will find only books and reference works that toe the evangelical line and eschew 'Modernism' and other secular or scientific heresies. There are endless series of bible-study guides and courses, not one of which is worth naming in this essay. Not one of them will give any insight into the nature of the biblical texts or let the student know what real scholars have figured out, say, about the forgery known as the Book of Daniel. Not one of them will alert the student to the fact that the authors of Matthew and Luke plagiarized the Greek text of Mark, fitting it to their theopolitical circumstances. Not one will derive the creation myths in Genesis from Canaanite and Mesopotamian mythologies. Only benighted ignorance is for sale in the bible-studies pages of the CBD catalog.
What Does It All
The CBD catalog conceals an important message, one that can be
extracted from every page: America is on the verge of plunging back
down into the depths of the Dark Ages of Faith. The most abysmal
superstitions of a pre-scientific world are selling faster than Freedom
Fries and are being back-ordered. The catalog tells us that there
is an enormous market for disinformation in America and that the
ignorance industry is a frightfully large business. Worse yet, it
tells us that a large segment of our civilization desires to be deceived. It
repeats the antique message of Pope Paul IV's legate to Paris: populus vult decipi—the people want to be deceived. It tells
us that the investors who are profiting from the disinformation market
have not forgotten the even earlier message of the fourth-century
church father Eusebius, who titled a chapter of his Praeparatio Evangelica "How it may
be Lawful and Fitting to use Falsehood as a Medicine, and for the
Benefit of those who Want to be Deceived."
It might be argued that my use of the term disinformation is not quite in accord with the dictionary definition displayed at the beginning: "deliberately false information leaked by a government, as to confuse another nation's intelligence operations." It seems to me, however, that our present situation is entirely analogous to that of two governments competing for hegemony. One is the secular government set in power by the Constitution of the United States; the other is a clerical, shadow government engaged in guerrilla warfare against the constitutional authority. The clerical disinformation specialists not only are trying to deceive the American government with ancient lies and fables, they are creating new falsehoods that have allowed government officials to 'discover' that the First Amendment doesn't really require a wall of separation between church and state or guarantee freedom from religion, and that the American Founding Fathers really wanted to establish the Christian Nation that we are becoming.
Our civilization is being engulfed in a veritable Noah's Flood of disinformation. Atheists, Humanists, and rationalistic people of all denominations are desperately needed to play the part that Yahweh is said to have played at the end of the biblical flood: they must cut off the water supply. They must close the "windows of heaven" to stop the rain and plug-up the "fountains of the deep" to stem the tide. Unfortunately, their task is greater than that of Yahweh. Now that the flood is already on the earth, what is to be done with the water? For the flat earth on which Yahweh operated it would be easy: just let the water run over the edges of the earth and "asswage" and "abate." For the real world in which we are trying to survive, however, this option is not available. Our earth is a sphere, and water can't drain off it into outer space. We must somehow annihilate the 'water' that is suffocating the senses of our government officials and choking the intellectual life out of our civilization. How is this to be done? Alas, I do not really know—but I'm working on the problem.
World-Wide-Web edition of American
Atheist can be accessed at: http://www.americanatheist.org