Friday, August 22, 2014

How NOT to Run a Bookstore: Secular World Edition

If there is one thing I hate about being an atheist (and a poet) living in central Illinois, it's feeling out-of-place, insulted, and gypped by local chain bookstores.

To be fully honest here, I always feel disappointed whenever I visit Barnes & Noble, no matter where I am. Their selections are poor, they shelve mainly mass marketed paperbacks, and they're all about what's 'popular' and they tend to  play to assumed audiences. Well, mostly the regional managers do. Hence the problem. Chain bookstores are kind of like Starbucks. Each one is essentially the same, with variations on the theme. Changes are made based on what the demographic looks like in an area and based on the manager's prediction of what will sell/entice the public. Usually it involves making a proposal and having that motion cleared by someone higher up in the ranks.

Regardless, a few months ago I went to their location in Bloomington (IL), and I decided to mill about for five or so hours. That's standard for me. On the bargain table, I saw about eight hardback copies of "Mortality" by Christopher Hitchens. My initial reaction was, "Wow, I forgot to read this." My next reaction was, "Wait, why are these marked down to $6.95?"

I then began to roam the whole place, scanning keywords and cover art and, lo and behold, what do I see in the distance? Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It's two huge stacks filled on both sides with something the head honcho titled "Christian Fiction." And what is in front of it? A similarly long and huge shelf stacked with Bibles titled "Bibles." And off to the side, nearby another bargain bin is a section labeled "Spirituality." I could have built two whole kayaks with the wood from the shelves used for those sections. That's how big they were.

1. All of that belongs somewhere like, oh I don't know, Family Christian. Because that is what they sell. That is what they are in business for. That is not Barnes & Nobles' area of expertise and it shouldn't be.

2. This appears not to be only a Bloomington, Illinois issue. A reviewer of Evanston's B&N mentioned a large amount of Christian children's literature without much diversity.

3. Last I checked, Christianity is a kind of spirituality? Why is every other dogma relegated to "Spirituality" then, and a small, out-of-the-way holding space? That's rude.

4. "Christian Fiction" is just like saying "The Bible" so I don't know why the two were not lumped together under a giant neon sign electrically screaming and pulsing "CHRISTIANITY REIGNS HERE."

But when I visited the Barnes & Noble on the north side of Chicago (in Lincolnshire) a week later, there wasn't a trace of any of this. (Also, their paperback copy of Mortality with a roughly cut cover was nearly double what I paid at the B&N in Bloomington for a hardback. I guess that's the godless discount). There wasn't any semblance of a theistic bias when I went to the one associated with DePaul this past January either.

Of course every money lover wants to tailor their market. But has Bloomington's B&N gone a bit far? I think so. And the message I'm getting is that the stores with directors who push and advertise a dominant religion are likely on their last legs, desperate for income and patrons. With so many independent bookstores closing, this can only mean an ebook takeover for a spell, a brief tidal rejuvenation, and then another ebb.

So my question is: What will happen to places like Barnes & Noble in Midwestern small cities as the digital age creeps further and Christianity fades away? Combined, that's one hell of a sucker-punch, and "Christian Fiction" and Bibles (which at one time were the content nearly only Christian stores proffered) likely won't be enough to boost sales.

I can only imagine that if Bloomington's B&N started to expand their collections in paltry departments (like the poetry and memoir categories), they might actually sell more. And I mean, really, one can only sell so much Christian propaganda and exhibit favoritism for so long before the business crashes and buyers leave out of disinterest and disgust and walk their little fannies elsewhere.

But as a litterateur and library dork, I must say this is perhaps the best decision they could have made. Their mistake will be the public's gain. Perhaps within the next ten years, they'll be liquidating their assets, and I'll be laughing about their failure to factor in the rise of irreligion and the decline of faith-devotees as our oldest generations die out.


Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Every Activist Needs Allies

     Over the summer, ISSA has been fortunate enough to send officers, including myself, to both SSAcon in Columbus and CFIcon in Amherst! Cool! At both of these conferences, we were regaled with tales of secular humanist outreach and activism. We heard about a Center for Inquiry representative who stood up to Saudi Arabia at the UN Human Rights Council (watch that video in the link, it's crazy), and the amazing international volunteer work done by the Pathfinders Project, a pioneering attempt to establish a humanist service corps to rival religious missionary volunteering. There were so many other great talks at both events--I highly encourage you to keep an eye out for the conference recordings, which should be available on youtube soon™.

Pictured: the coolest human rights activist I've ever met.

     One speaker that really made me think critically about the importance of activism and my place in it was the great Leo Igwe. In case you haven't heard of this excellent gentleman, you should know that he is one of the most influential Nigerian humanists alive today, and he is massively passionate about the causes he champions, including the malign influence of Boko Haram, the importance of keeping Nigeria's government secular, and witchcraft accusations. Although it's not frequently mentioned in Western media, Nigeria and many other African countries today still have a superstitious and hateful distrust of witchcraft, which can lead to ritual killings and human sacrifice, and have entire communities that are "witch camps"; these are essentially concentration camps where thousands of women that are accused of witchcraft and exiled from their homes under threat of death are forced to live for the rest of their lives. These witch camps are populated exclusively by women, because superstitious dogma claims that only a woman can practice witchcraft, and they are severely lacking in even basic housing, sanitation, and medicine. Leo has spent more than a decade raising awareness, money, and support for women and children accused of witchcraft.

     When I heard Leo talk in Columbus a few weeks ago, I wasn't sure my ears were working correctly. Nigeria, a developed country, in the year 2014, was accusing women and children of witchcraft, and these accusations were so serious that people had to flee for their lives? It baffled me. However, Leo talked about his experiences battling "deadly misinformation", and I quickly went from incredulous to outraged. I could write at length on the topic of witch hunts and the inhumanity of witch camps, but that's a topic for a different day.

     Leo's talk also provided the title for this blog. He spoke at length about the need, present and future, for atheist and secular activists to not only effect change, but to gather allies--that is, people who may not agree with us 100% on every issue, but who are willing to work together to right wrongs. Just as the LGBT movement gathers allies on everything from marriage reform to effective sex education, we need to find groups who agree with us on important issues like church-state separation, secular legislation, real science education, etc. and form coalitions to make our voices heard. Although it might sound cheesy, this kind of networking is critical.

     Allies are essential for a variety of reasons, but one of the most obvious reasons is also one of the most important: they have the numbers to amplify the secular movement's voice far beyond the reach of the soapboxes we normally stand on. Although trends suggest the broader secular movement is still growing in size and influence (hooray!), and we have more ways to spread our message than ever before, we are still only a tiny fraction of the populace. Pew's frequently-cited survey on the presence of "nones" in American society might be heartening, but many people, including prominent atheists, tend to forget that many of these nones are spiritual and church-attending people. These people could make excellent allies, but they are almost certainly not going to be active in the secular movement. Similarly, while the opinions of hardcore atheists might be viewed as extreme and alienating by liberal Christians, there's no doubt in my mind that many of those same Christians share our desire to see the wall of separation upheld, because that wall protects them just as well as it protects us.

     Leo was hardly the only speaker at SSAcon to mention the importance of allies--everyone from the esteemed August E. Brunsman IV to the hilarious Preacherman mentioned the importance of reaching across the aisle at some point. Many speakers at CFIcon had something to say about reaching outside of the (potentially) insular secular community as well. I shall paraphrase James Croft extremely poorly: "Although you guys are working hard to save the world, you're not the only people that live in it. Go out there and make friends!"

     If you're involved with a campus or community secular group, don't be afraid to make friends! ISSA regularly gets involved with religious and advocacy groups on campus for service and volunteer work, from cleaning up our local Boneyard Creek to blood drives. We have a lot of room for improvement, but I can say confidently that these are some of the most valuable activities the club is a part of, not only because we improve our community, but because we form connections with other groups and show them that atheists and their ilk are pretty cool folks. You can too! While there is no cookie-cutter approach to forming coalitions, the author humbly suggests starting small and finding groups near yours that might agree with you about an important issue or two. Maybe you could check out Openly Secular? There's a whole lot of opportunity out there.

     Until next time, heathens!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Review of the Madison Freethought Festival


ISSA attended the 3rd Freethought Festival this past weekend of April 12, and while I (Alex) have been a member for three years now, this was the first conference/festival I attended, and I now see what all the excitement is about.

In the video below, I highlight two of my favorite events at the festival: Hemant Mehta's talk on branching out into different forms of media, and the debate between Rev. Matt Slick and Dan Barker (president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation).


Thursday, April 17, 2014

Atheism, Poetry, and the Tabling of Secularism

Let's talk poetry. 'Atheist' or 'Agnostic' is likely not the first thing people associate with 'Poet.' Perhaps for obvious reasons. But I've been thinking lately: what do we think about when we think about poetry? And how is secularism influencing this particular writing field?

In response to a recent call for submissions by poetry journal Rattle editor and author Tim Green, I sent a message to him inquiring why the editing board decided to do a series called "Poets of Faith" and not anything open to secularists this season. Rattle tends to do different themes every few months or so. In the past, they've put out issues like "Tribute to Law Enforcement" and "Single Parents." But in the few years I've been following what they publish, I haven't seen anything related to secularism. I'm not at all against a "Poets of Faith" series. It's often very interesting to see what religions or spiritual paths people identify with, and how it impacts their writing, and how it can be molded into each individual's craft and how, in some cases, it's fairly absent. I just thought the lack of inclusion something to note. In any case, his response interested me greatly, because I believe there was a misunderstanding. When we had our back and forth, I meant 'secular' as in 'non-theist.' When he said 'secular' he meant 'would claim to be secular in any identifiable way.'

Interesting distinction. In any case, I liked how he clarified, and I'm posting it here.

"In my experience, poets are very similar demographically to scientists. There's a small percentage who make faith claims -- Dana Gioia, Mark Jarman, Marie Howe, etc. But the majority are secular, or a kind of Mary Oliver agnostic, leaving room for mystery but rejecting any dogma. I mentioned the scientist issue, because that's something I've been planning to do for a while, but what might work out would be an Atheists Poets issue. I think atheists are 10% of the general population (supposedly, I think it's actually much higher, but that's what the surveys say). Among poets willing to make that claim, it's probably a little higher, 15 - 20% maybe, which is probably what the percentage is for religious poets. We'll probably do that sometime."

I consider this to be fairly accurate, and I'm left here wondering: why are poets demographically similar to scientists? Why might so many poets identify as atheist or agnostic? 

My guess would be that poetry tends to require a writer to scrutinize and consider a situation, or object, or feeling (or whatever) from a variety of perspectives with a certain thoroughness known as critical thinking. But when I search the term 'atheistic poets' on Google, university library catalogs, and local databases, I get nothing academic. Through Google, the only promising hit was on www.poetryfoundation.org. The library databases gave me nothing, and the only other 'atheist poets/poetry' hits were amateur blogs. Very amateur blogs. When I searched 'secular poetry' the internet nearly caved in. I got results ranging from "Guide to the Secular Poetry of T.S. Eliot" to "Medieval Hebrew poetry in Muslim Egypt: the Secular Poetry of the Karaite Poet Moses ben Abraham Dar'i" all the way up to "Morality and Masculinity in the Carolingian Empire." More than half of the results included 'secular' and 'religious' and their derivations in the titles, and the range was spread nicely.

Secular [sek-yuh-ler]: adj. of or pertaining to worldly things or to things that are not regarded as religious, spiritual, sacred; temporal.

Atheism [ey-thee-iz-uhm]: n. disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings. (Atheistic is reflexive of atheism, so it was pointless to put its definition  here).

Welcome, all, to the gray area. I have a hunch that past authors have had to waddle in it, because of social pressures or other reasons. The ambiguity in classification has made things... interesting for poetry. Most atheistic writing I've found tends to be nonfiction (thanks Dawkins), and I worry that the atheist community isn't representing itself very well in the arts right now. We call nonreligious music 'secular' but in doing so, we're only simply saying that it's 'not religiously themed.' Are we doing the same in poetry? Has 'secular' become the living room rug we all step on and prefer versus the hardwood floor panels of 'atheism'? Every term has its distinctions, but when it comes to visibility in poetry, 'secular' just doesn't seem to hold up.

I think there tends to be very little discussion about poetry, and how atheists manufacture meaning for themselves and in their writing. I think there also tends to be the assumption that non-scientists are more spiritual than they actually are. (Although, to speak frankly, I think powerful individuals in society are always assuming the general populace is more religious than it is). 

So, what are atheist poets to do? Rally for their own spaces, perhaps as I politely did? Embrace the vagueness of 'secular' for whatever reason? It's my position that any mode of action that is respectful and beneficial should be taken. 

Getting lost staring into space induces wonder, always, but there are other fascinations equally powerful, I think, that are often talked about in poetry. Poets tackle everything. Poetry, to me, is a life conference. 

So, my position is also that we need more poets saying, "Hey, I can write beautiful, artful things, revel in semantic wonder...and not believe in a higher power. This is my awe."

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Think of the Children

I don't know about anyone else, but almost nothing makes me angrier than people who refuse to vaccinate their children. I don't know what "research" they're doing, but it seems that watching celebrities and reading blog posts about how doctors are out to get you seem to be about it (Jenny McCarthy, anyone?). I've always assumed (hoped) that these people were a sad, confused minority, but as it turns out, half of America believes in at least one medical conspiracy, according to a new survey.

Before I continue ripping people a new one for not checking their sources, this survey was approved by the institutional review board of the University of Chicago. It surveyed over 1300 people and was weighted to provide a representative sample of the people of America. In a word, it's pretty legit.

20% of respondents believed that the government is lying to us about vaccines. 20% believe cell phones cause cancer, but big businesses bribe health officials to lie about it 12% believe that the CIA infected African Americans with HIV by pretending it was the hepatitis vaccine. A whopping 37% believe that the Food and Drug Administration has natural cures for cancer but isn't releasing them.

Sorry Jimmy. Maybe if you had enough Facebook likes you could have that magical herbal tea.

The people who believed these studies tended to rely on celebrity doctors and the internet for medical advice. Of all the people who depended on those two sources, 80% believed in at least one theory. They did not get physicals as often and shunned things like flu shots and sunscreen. One thing that I found surprising was that the conspiracy theorists came from all across the political spectrum, demonstrating that research ability isn't just lacking on one side. They were more likely to be poorer and less educated, but the study indicated that there were conspiracy theorists from all different backgrounds.

So are these people stupid, or crazy? No. The government is confusing as all get-out, and there's always a new health craze attractive person on TV telling you not to worry, they have all the answers to keep your family safe and in good health. But these people don't know where to get good information, or maybe even how to begin looking. As the public school system in America heads downhill, so does our ability to think critically and be true skeptics instead of paranoid theorists. So I guess this is really a call to teachers and parents and congressmen and administrators--teach the kids to be critical thinkers. To not rely on Dr. Oz or WebMD for their health. To know how to read a study and see if it's well done. To be able to realize who to trust (hint--your doctor is a good one. They don't go through 12 years of post high school education to joke around) but also how to get second opinions. Let's teach our kids to be real skeptics instead of fostering the next generation of paranoia.


Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Progressive Is the New Black

Recently I came across an ad that looked surprisingly, well, gay. Suspicious--not of the ad itself, but of my possible misinterpretation of it--I dug a bit deeper. What I found, yet again surprisingly, was an entire movement of progressive ad campaigns.

The ad--a campaign for Banana Republic--features models who are coupled in real life, including couples of two men, clearly representing the homosexual population. And to my delight, Banana Republic is neither the only major brand to do this, nor is it the first. In fact, several companies have recently broken the heterosexual-only precedent. In 2011, J. Crew featured its designer, Somsack Sikhounuong with his boyfriend in an ad campaign, and in 2012, Ray-Ban, Gap, Target, and JC Penny all displayed ads with gay or lesbian couples. And recently, Barneys released an ad campaign called "Brothers, Sisters, Sons & Daughters" featuring transgendered models and their support groups.

Refreshingly enough, the reason behind these ads was not to shock consumers, but to represent reality--the world we live in today. As stated by the chief creative officer for Banana republic, their goal was "to reflect our world and how we live in a true genuine way." And the CEO of Barneys fell along the same ideals, stating that it was the right time to feature an ad with transgenders because "the T in LGBT was getting left behind."

These type of ads, increasingly more common, reflect not only a shift in the consumer industry, but in the consumers themselves. These companies know the impact they have, the influence their ads will bring not only to themselves but to the cause for equality. The choice to include gay or lesbian couples in their ads is not arbitrary, but a calculated decision to support equal rights by showing equal representation. And as progressive companies continue to produce these ads, the normalcy of it is increased, encouraging more conservative companies to also champion equal rights. Yet, Banana Republic, Barneys, J. Crew--no matter the stance they wish to take, they still have to sell clothes. Clearly these ads do not only reflect the companies' support of equality, but consumer support as well. Generally, consumers today, particularly the younger demographic support marriage equality more fervently than any generation before.

Essentially, these ads are a double-edged sword--in a good way--not only promoting inclusion, but reflecting the public's cry for this inclusion. As more and more of these advertisements come out, more people are exposed to them, normalizing homosexuality, increasing acceptance, creating a larger platform of supporters and opening the door for other companies to support the cause for equality. These ads are a great thing, not only because of their promotion of inclusion and equal rights, but because of their reflection of consumers today.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Spirit of Fear

For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. -2 Timothy 1:7

For today's sermon, I would like to address a certain disconnect I have observed in the secular community. Now, Bill Nye is pretty cool. And personally, I laud his performance during the recent debate between himself and Ken Ham on the viability of Ham's creationist model of the world. But something bothers me. This isn't a hesitation exclusive to this debate. This discomfort is of the same sort I have experienced time and again as I've watched the clash of world views between the religious and the rest of us.

This discomfort is not due to any objection to the Science Guy's efforts to educate the public; I think the time is right for the scientific community to descend from its ivory towers and directly engage creationist ignorance and inanity in the public square. Nor is it due to any particular element in the content of Bill's arguments; I think he did quite well in delivering a clear presentation of sane science. My discomfort stems from a certain naïveté of his that I wish to address in this piece. Many secular people, including Bill Nye, do not understand the Spirit of Fear.

I. The Frustration

The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good. --Psalm 14:1

There is a question I see many non-religious people wrestling with privately. They don't want to articulate it, for it is an obnoxious question with overtones of arrogance, intolerance, and guile: Why do religious people sound so goddamn stupid so much of the time?

There it is. Are you glad I said it for you? Breathe a sigh of relief, for I have borne your cross of political incorrectness. Nye submits a tree with 10,000 rings. Ham: Jesus. The Bible. The earth is 6,000 years old. Nye submits an ice core from the antarctic displaying over half a million summer-winter cycles. Ham: Jesus. The Bible. 6,000 years. Nye submits a fossil record demonstrating the evolution of life from trilobites to mammals over billions of years. Ham: Jesus. The Bible. 6,000 years. Rubidium and Strontium? Ham: Don't care. Jesus...

But the religious aren't inherently stupid. Many of them manage to put their pants on in the morning and go to work or school; a very small percentage of them are even renowned scientists in their field. What's going on here? Why are people like Bill Nye forced to furl their brow in frustration when trying to communicate fact? It's not that hard, right? This tree is older than you say the earth is. This tree is of the earth. Therefore, you are wrong, Ken Ham. QED. Doy.

As evidenced by Bill Nye's presentation, as evidenced by so many polemic endeavors by so many skilled elucidators of knowledge, there is a fundamental disconnect going on here. How can irrationality persist when assailed by evidence so sound? Why aren't the religious swayed by your ineludible command of reason and evidence? Well, I shall tell you.

II. The Background

There are different types of religions. Some religions, like Shintoism, could be best described as organized systems of paying respect to our elders. Buddhism has its serious problems, but at its core it is more of a practice than anything, a methodology giving instructions for escaping the suffering of this world. Hinduism has a deplorable caste system, but one does not incur bad karma for not believing in the concept of karma.

As for those who do not believe in the life to come, We have made their deeds seem alluring to them, so they wander blindly: it is they who will have the worst suffering, and will be the ones to lose most in the life to come. You [Prophet Muhammad] receive the Qur'an from One who is all wise, all knowing. -Surah 27:4-6

Islam and Christianity, on the other hand, are fundamentally different in terms of their soteriology (albeit not completely unique; there are a few others like them). Soteriology: the theory of and instructions regarding salvation, from the Greek “σωτήρ” meaning savior and “λόγος” meaning word or study. I don't mean to belabor an obvious point, but before one can declare the Shahada and become a “saved” Muslim, one must first sincerely believe that there is a god, that Muhammad is his final prophet, and that the Qur’an was composed by God and revealed to Muhammad by the angel Jibril (Gabriel). Before one can become a “saved” Christian one must first sincerely believe that there is a god, that he incarnated himself as Jesus of Nazareth, that he died and rose again, and by doing so atoned for our sins. These are specific claims about specific events in history.

If you declare with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. --Romans 10:9

In other words, although this point is not always clearly and explicitly articulated in these spiritual circles, the first step in their version of salvation is to accept a set of assertions. Do you believe George Washington chucked a silver dollar across the Potomac? Do you believe Paul Bunyan created the lakes of Minnesota stumbling around in a snowstorm? YES or NO? Your eternal disposition depends on your answer. “Creed” comes from the the Latin credo, meaning “I believe”, so I call these “creed-based religions”.

Let us step back for a moment to reflect on the fundamental ridiculousness going on here. Ultimately, whether or not you spend an eternity in Islamic or Christian Hell is determined by a post-mortem pop quiz. Did you believe Jesus was the earthly incarnation of God? Whoops. “Say, 'He is God the One, God the eternal. He begot no one nor was he begotten. No one is comparable to Him.'” -Surah 112. You thought God begot a son via the virgin Mary in Bethlehem? Blasphemer! Sucks to be you. Oh, you didn't get the memo about the Holy Qur’an? Too bad. Enjoy Hell, motherfucker.
   
Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed. -John 20:29

Assertions. Really try to pick up what I'm laying down. In creed-based religions, salvation begins with believing claims, by acquiescing to ideas. That is first base in the creed-based religions, Islam, Christianity, etc. Now, there are other steps, other tasks, other ingredients involved in avoiding being on fire forever. (Catholic confession, The Five Pillars of Islam, etc.) But you must first be convinced by these claims in order to be saved from the eternal torture I discussed last time.

III. The Fear

So to return to our question, why do religious people sound so goddamn stupid so much of the time? Well, here it is: If your salvation from eternal Hell depends on your belief in a set of claims, then to believe in that set of claims becomes the highest of virtues. To cease to believe becomes the most terrible of tragedies. To convince others to believe becomes the ultimate moral good. To persuade others to abandon belief becomes the height of moral failure and transgression.

"If anyone causes one of these little ones-those who believe in me-to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” - Jesus, (supposedly), Matthew 18:6

The values of science such as freedom of expression, open-mindedness, critical thinking, questioning assumptions, embracing life's opportunities to discover one's own errors, and to take joy in gaining better insight-- these are wholly antithetical to the very essence and foundation of creed-based religions. We can see the evidence of this today in the Islamic world with its censors, Sharia Law, and thought police. And until modern secular thought began to inch its way into Western society and take civil authority away from Christian churches, we saw this Spirit of Fear manifest itself in inquisitions, witch-burnings, pogroms, and heresy trials.

They must be silenced, because they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach...” -Titus 1:11

Although, thankfully, Christians are now prevented from killing non-believers in our country with impunity, they still suffer from and foment the Spirit of Fear in America. Christians see their neighbors, their friends, and their family, discarding specious claims and convictions previously held, and it frightens them. These apostates used to be just like them. (Gasp) “Could such a terrible thing happen to me?” they wonder. Christians and others in creed-based religions do not have the luxury of entertaining other ideas, other opinions, or other perspectives which could potentially threaten their faith. When salvation begins with a belief in a set of assertions, changing one's mind becomes the ultimate existential threat to one's eternal disposition. There is literally Hell to pay for thinking too much.

IV. The Evolution Hoopla (an aside)

This Spirit of Fear manifests in many ways, but I would like to address the specific topic which I mentioned earlier:  young earth creationism. Why do so many literalist Christians get stuck on this one issue? Why don't they get hung up on the Bible's assertion that there is a great ceiling in the sky, or the firmament, “hard as a mirror of cast bronze?” (Job 37:18) Why aren't they worried that one of NASA's rockets might accidentally bump into one of the “floodgates of the heavens” (Genesis 7:11) precipitating a deluge once again as holes are punched in the firmament which “divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament”? (Genesis 1:7) (God wouldn't let that happen, of course. Genesis 8:21. But still.) The evidence for evolution is just as solid as for a heliocentric solar system and a “roofless” outer space.

The answer is Jesus. Or, more specifically, why Jesus' death and resurrection have the effect of saving people who believe these two events occurred. Many in the Christian laity may not have asked these questions, but their leaders who promote creationism certainly have. Why do Jesus' death and resurrection supposedly atone for our sins and reconcile us to God? Why didn't Jesus' death and resurrection conjure some other magick like ending all suffering, or curing all disease, or bringing world peace, or turning the moon into a giant purple raspberry?

God's word is true. I've come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and Big Bang Theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell. And it's lies to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior.” -Rep. Paul Broun, 10th Congressional District of Georgia

The New Testament is clear in its explanation of the “physics” of salvation. There is a poetic beauty, an almost mathematical symmetry to the apostle Paul's explanation in Romans 5, reiterated again in 1 Corinthians 15: If death entered the world through the sin of one man, then the sacrifice of one man atones for the sin of the world saving us from death. The curse of the original sin of Adam, which vicariously condemns us to eternal Hell, is lifted by the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus, which vicariously redeems us into everlasting life.

How cute. It's not difficult to see why this quaint narrative has been compelling to many over the centuries. The trouble is, evolution decimates this narrative. Evolutionary biology shows that there were no Adam and Eve in a garden 6,000 years ago, and thus no original sinner to commit the original sin. It shows that we form a continuum with all life on Earth, that we share a common ancestor with horses, chimpanzees, lizards, and onions. The record of our kinship is engraved into the DNA of every cell in our bodies.

So whose sin did Jesus die for? If there was no concrete point in our history where humans began, if we share a common ancestor with all life, should we send missionaries to the bonobos to tell them to stop fornicating so prodigiously? Can walruses accept Jesus as their personal savior? Do bananas go to heaven? Will I spend eternity with the bacteria I just killed by washing my hands with soap? Hopefully penicillin goes to heaven too, because there's going to be a lot of vindictive microbes there with a grudge. To what subset of the continuum of life does Jesus' saving grace extend?

Catholics have a way out of this particular problem, because they have an infallible pope to “imagineer” the Bible as being open to the compatibility of the theories of salvation and evolution. The Pope can just declare that God guided evolution and started injecting souls into our ape ancestors at some unknown yet distinct point, and abracadabra, ex cathedra, the creation story now becomes an allegory to a point. (For further reading on this topic, see the encyclical of Pope Pius XII, Humani Generis) But for those who adhere to a strict philosophy of sola scriptura like Ken Ham and other young earth creationists, this presents a damning, faith-invalidating conundrum.

For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight. As it is written: "He catches the wise in their craftiness"; -1 Corinthians 3:19

The Spirit of Fear. That's what Bill Nye and many others do not seem to understand. In his Big Think video entitled, “Creationism is Not Appropriate for Children,” Nye demonstrates this disconnect in his comprehension. He said, "I say to the grownups, 'If you want to deny evolution and live in your world that's completely inconsistent with everything we've observed in the universe that's fine. But don't make your kids do it.'" What the fuck, Bill? He’s not asking them to let their children choose a different career track rather than follow their parents into the circus. He’s not requesting that parents kindly refrain from smoking crack in front of their kids. From the point of view of the audience he is addressing, he is asking parents to let their children pour gasoline on their own heads and light a match. Only worse, since “the fire never goes out” in Hell. (Mark 9:43)

When you come to a point where you realize presenting one more transitional fossil, one more red-shifted star, one more radiometric sample will be futile, your understanding of your task must adapt. Many complimented Bill Nye on avoiding theology during his debate. I think those expressing this sentiment are woefully ignorant of the situation. We must acknowledge that we will be ineffective at communicating science until we first put on a psychotherapist’s hat and deal with the deeply ingrained anxieties seared into the psyches of the indoctrinated. In order to perpetuate and preserve itself, Christianity must instill a deep Spirit of Fear into the minds of its adherents, an inoculation against reasoning and questioning too much. That damage must first be undone.

V. The Big Picture

Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. -Proverbs 4:23

This Spirit of Fear is not always confined to matters directly affecting soteriology. The glorification of recalcitrance and assholery, being necessary to the security of an irrational belief system, can often be seen radiating into other, often bizarre areas of religious life. When thoughts become threats, anything, real or imagined, could potentially open the doorway to danger.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. -Ephesians 6:12


Growing up in the church, there was always something weird and irrational threatening us in the heavenly realms. I remember the church committee formed to try to exorcise the 2-D Nintendo arcade games from the local Pizza Hut, the sermons urging a boycott of ABC for airing the show “NYPD Blue” due to its racey (at the time) content, and the meetings about homosexuals surreptitiously infiltrating other churches in our Mennonite conference. There was “Adventures in Odyssey”, a child-oriented radio drama produced by Focus on the Family which warned us about the dangerous demons we could unwittingly summon if we were so foolish as to play RPG’s like Dungeons and Dragons. The cast of the show even included a token “unsaved” smarty-pants scientist named Eugene Meltsner to teach us that even smart people could be so stupid as to not believe in Jesus. (Of course, later, he learned his lesson when he foolishly ran a high-tech computerized death simulation. Since he was not a Christian, he inevitably wound up screaming in a virtual reality Sim-Hell. Completely traumatized and terrified by the horrific experience, he finally came to his senses and toed the religious line. Yay wholesome Christian kids’ shows!)

But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. -James 1:6-7

It was much the same at home. By some arbitrary metric, one educational PBS show was permitted, another was taboo. All secular cartoons were evil. “Star Wars” was evil because, “The green guy with pointy ears looks like Satan.” I always wondered how Mom knew what Satan looked like. Secular music was shunned unless it fell into certain understood categories like classical music or ole' timey tunes. Books which would be considered innocuous to most would disappear from my bookshelf. When traveling my dad would pray a “hedge of protection around the doors and windows of this motel room.” This was in case some of the previous occupants had committed some sinful act which might have opened a magical portal to the spiritual plane enabling demons to squeeze through and haunt us. And don't even get me started on the Halloween shenanigans.

We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. -2 Corinthians 10:5

Many American children grow up in environments so extreme in their psychological sheltering, Orwell himself would be impressed. Their parents have hermetically sealed them against anything that might induce any trace of cognitive dissonance between their indoctrination and reality. They live in rural areas, cut off from the internet and other media. They are homeschooled. Their only contact with others outside their family is in churches filled with like-minded individuals. If they are permitted to go to “college”, they often end up at an institution like Bob Jones University or Liberty University, where the shielding from reality continues.

Unless you’ve been living in a shoe, you've probably seen the Spirit of Fear at work in American culture. Just turn on your local Christian radio station, and you will hear Professor Haywood Jabuzoff from American Bible Patriot NASCAR University somberly discussing with the host whether the antichrist will be a Jew or a Muslim, or how to drive the gay demons from your child. You may even see it in your daily interactions. Last week, a religious person I know sent me a Christian apologist’s “book review” for Hitchens’ God Is Not Great. Had the person read the book in question? No. He couldn’t have, because that would have been too scary. He could only dare to  defer to authority and pass along to me the brain scat of Christian “experts” qualified and trained to endure the tribulation of cracking the pages of an evil so potent. 

The greatest dangers for Christians are not real threats, but rather the phantasms of their own minds. When Pat Robertson warns that homosexuality causes earthquakes and hurricanes, when Jerry Falwell claimed that feminists and pagans caused 9/11, when you hear Christians attributing school shootings to the fact that kids aren't being forced to participate in state-mandated obligatory prayers, the easily accessible evidence that these claims are not true cannot assail their mental edifice of irrationality, fortified as it is against reason.

VI. The End

Before you can fill a jar, you must first take off the lid. Before Bill Nye, or any of us for that matter, can succeed in educating those stuck in a creed-based religion, we must first approach the problem as psychologists dealing with fear psychoses before filling minds with real knowledge. The Spirit of Fear affects the religious in a way unique to each individual and community. You will find some whose soteriology is not challenged by evolution, but think zygotes in a petri dish have the same value as a fully developed person. You will find some who think being gay is okay, but gay marriage is an existential threat to society. You will find some for whom religion plays almost no visible role in their lives, but who will lash out at you for speaking an ill word about whichever belief system they belong to in those moments of their lives when a superficial display of piety is required. Each religionist is different, terrified of diverse spectres. But the origin of the fear is the same. Thoughts and ideas are a threat to salvation.

Years ago I was confident that if I laid out a perfect, logical, irrefutable case for why evolution is true or Christianity is bullshit, etc. the person with whom I was speaking would melt under the power of my superior reason. This was quite naïve of me, and having been trapped in a "relationship with Jesus" myself, the folly of this mentality should have been obvious to me. In fact, a perfect argument could foreseeably have an opposite effect to that which was intended. Why? A common theme accompanying creed-based religious indoctrination is the idea that doubt itself is an attack of the Devil.

Those who turn on their heels after being shown guidance [from the Qur’an] are duped and tempted by [Shaitan]. -Surah 47:25

This creates a paradox, as I painfully experienced when I first began escaping the trappings of Christianity. As the case for changing religious belief becomes stronger, one's conditioning exacerbates the Spirit of Fear, inflicting the doubter with a sense of paranoia. The more compelling an argument for belief change is, the more the doubter's conditioning induces a counter-reaction, a terror of besiegement by the evil forces he was guaranteed would try to deceive him into altering his beliefs in the first place. Creed-based religions have been cleverly engineered with this self-fulfilling circular prophecy: The fact that you are doubting confirms what you are doubting, because what you are doubting predicted you would doubt. Aha!

The concept of God has given them the Spirit of Fear. Without developing a compassionate sensitivity to these individuals and their ensnared state of mind, you will gain little ground. Fear breeds resistance to rationality. Unless you address the fearful, emotional element, you will always be presenting the 101st reason Sheik Hussein Obama is not building concentration camps for Christians in Montana, the 1,001st scientific paper demonstrating abstinence-only education is useless if not downright harmful, the 10,001st example of why gay marriage does not cause society to implode, the 100,001st astronomical measurement showing the universe to be billions of years old, or the 1,000,001st fossil proving evolution. It is not enough to regurgitate fact. The manacles of the Spirit of Fear built into the very fabric of Christian faith, and other faiths, must be addressed before progress can be made. Good luck with that.

All scriptural quotes come from M.A.S. Abdel Haleem’s translation of the Qur’an, and the NIV and KJV translations of the Bible.