Religion Articles


1. God didn't make man; man made gods
2. The Church of Copy and Paste
3. Keep Religion Out Of Private Life
4. The Atheist Manifesto
5. Christianity In Crisis
6. The Jerusalem Syndrome
7. The Daily Show
8. Absolutist Morality
9. Nuns On The Frontier
10. Bishops' World
11. Is Free Will An Illusion?
12. Why Cults Are Mindless
13. The Catholic Church and Money
14. God Loves Misery
15. God's Fanatics Are Back
16. The Problem With Hell
17. Creationist Education
18. Science vs Religion
19. 5 Misconceptions About OT
20. Doomsday Thinking
21. The Decline of Evangelical America
22. Why Priests Quit
23. Atheist Church
24. What Atheists Can Learn From Religion
25. Organ Donors and Religion
26. Fundies
27. Heaven or Hallucinations?
28. Violent Fanatics
29. Autistic children are atheists
30. William Lane Craig
31. Christian Atheism
32. Conservatives Try To Deal With Gay Marriage
33. Fundamentalists and Scholarship
34. Superman and Saints
35. Churches Always Lag Behind
36. Magical Thinking
37. Tax Churches
38. Trans Genders
39. Evangelicals and End Times
40. Why Noah's Ark Is Unpossible
41. When did the church accept that the Earth moves around the sun?
42. Beliefs Always Trump Facts
43. The Problem With Religious Rules
44. Richard Dawkins
45. Matthew Parris on Richard Dawkins
46. Britain: Religion and the Law
47. What They Do, Not What They Believe
48. Scientology
49. Separation of Church and State
50. Declining Evangelicalism and Crystal Cathedral
51. What Is The Religious Argument Against Atheism?
52. Atheist Survived Tornado
53. Cargo Cults - More Than Meets The Eye
54. The Lessons of the Flood Stories
55. DIY
56. Why is it so hard for Christians to understand evolution?
57. Richard Dawkins Interview
58. Dating The New Testament Sources
59. When Can Society Overrule Religions?
60. The Religious Right and Birth Control
61. Bill Gates On Religion
62. Noah and Fundamentalists
63. Mormon Teaching
64. What Is A 'Christian' Nation?
65. 11 reasons why Jesus is not coming back...
66. Biblical Marriage
67. The Onion: 9/11 Hijackers In Hell
68. Old Earth Is Heresy
69. Losing Religion
70. Religious Apathy
71. Religious Extremism
72. Catholics and Contraceptives
73. Tea Party Is A Religious Movement
74. Glasshouses - Publicity Killing Churches
75. Intolerance
76. Bible Literalists
77. The Church of War
78. Tribes (Seth Godin)
79. Surrogacy To Split The Religious Right
80. A Game for Good Christians
81. Exodus - a myth
82. Religion and The Rich In America
83. God and Philosophy
84. Cain and Abel and Justice
85. Leaving Closed Communities
86. Evangelicals and Pop Culture
87. Crackpot But Irrefutable
88. Did Jesus Save The Klingons?
89. Jerusalem
90. Adam and Eve
91. Religious Fatties
92. Religions Will Die Out
93. Pope Francis and Doorways
94. Religion Is No Sacred Cow
95. Scientology
96. Religious Exemptions
97. Offending Religions
98. The Violence of Religious Reformations
99. Evangelicals For Israel
100. How Scientology Fights Critics
101. Sabbath Rules Kills Kids
102. Zodiac Signs Out Of Whack
103. Scientology Losing Control
104. (Pro) Wrestling and Religion (They're both fake)
105. Neil deGrasse Tyson
106. Religion Based Bigotry
107. Heaven Visit Literature
108. The Patriarchy and The Role of Women
109. Hard-Wired For Supernatural Explanations?
110. Conservatives think there's a global war against Xity
111. Miracle-Busting Science
112. Irish Catholic Church
113. Questioning Mohammed
114. Christian Terrorists
115. The First Church of Cannabis
116. Christians are just too gullible
117. Why Christians Feel Persecuted
118. Kim Davis and Need For Militant Atheism
119. Searching For Meaning
120. Disappearing MiddleEast Religions
121. The War On Religion
122. Why Radical Islam Appeals
123. Christians and Porn








 

God didn't make man; man made gods

 

The Church of Copy and Paste



The First Church of Pirate Bay

The city of Uppsala has seen its share of religious congregations. In ancient times, it was the main pagan center of Sweden, famed for its temple to the Old Norse gods. In the Middle Ages, it became a Christian stronghold. Today, Uppsala is home to Isak Gerson, a bright, polite, twenty-year-old philosophy student and the spiritual leader of the Missionary Church of Kopimism, which last week became Sweden's newest registered religion.

Modern Sweden isn't known as a particularly religious place: in a recent poll, only seventeen per cent of Swedes said that faith is an important part of their lives. But Sweden is known, in recent years, as a hotbed of online piracy and anti-copyright activism. That's the tradition from which Kopimism arises.

The religion's history goes something like this: In 2001, a lobby group called the Antipiratbyran - the Anti-Piracy Bureau - was formed in Sweden to combat copyright infringement. In 2003, members of a growing free-information movement copied the lobby group's name, but removed the 'anti,' calling themselves Piratbyran - the Piracy Bureau. Later that same year, Piratbyran created a Web site called The Pirate Bay, which quickly became the world's most notorious source for downloading feature films, TV shows, and software.

In 2005, Ibrahim Botani, a Kurdish immigrant to Sweden and a central figure in Piratbyran, designed a kind of un-copyright logo called 'kopimi' (pronounced 'copy me'). Adding the kopimi mark to a work of intellectual property indicates that you not only give permission for it to be copied but actively encourage it.

After Botani died unexpectedly, in 2010, Piratbyran decided to disband. But The Pirate Bay still thrives, despite an ongoing criminal case against its operators. And in 2006, Rick Falkvinge founded Sweden's Pirate Party, a political party that runs on a pro-Internet platform, with special emphasis on copyright and patent reform. Gerson is an active member: "I've been managing local campaigns for the election," he told me. "And I've been working a lot with the Young Pirates Association - the youth wing of the Party."

The Missionary Church of Kopimism picks up where Piratbyran left off: it has taken the values of Swedish Pirate movement and codified them into a religion. They call their central sacrament 'kopyacting,' wherein believers copy information in communion with each other, most always online, and especially via file-sharing. Ibi Botani's kopimi mark - a stylized 'k' inside a pyramid - is their religious symbol, as are CTRL+C and CTRL+V. Where Christian clergy might sign a letter "yours in Christ," Kopimists write, "Copy and seed." They have no god.

"We see the world as built on copies," Gerson told me. "We often talk about originality; we don't believe there's any such thing. It's certainly that way with life - most parts of the world, from DNA to manufacturing, are built by copying." The highest form of worship, he said, is the remix: "You use other people's works to make something better."

Fittingly, it was exactly this kind of collaborative spirit that led to the founding of the Missionary Church of Kopimism. In a blog post last week, Peter Sunde, one of the founders of The Pirate Bay, suggested that Kopimism as a religion had originated from a comment made by one of its opponents. Several years ago, he wrote, a Swedish lawyer for the M.P.A.A. was asked about file-sharing advocates. She replied, "It's just a few people, very loud. They're a cult. They call themselves Kopimists." Sunde thought this cult business sounded like a good idea, and looked into registering Kopimism as a religion, but never followed through. Gerson did. "This is one of the essential things with how the internet and kopimism works," Sunde wrote. "If you don't do it, someone else will."

In Sweden, the separation of church and state became law on January 1, 2000, the day that the Lutheran Church of Sweden stopped being the official state church. Since then, a government agency called the Kammarkollegiet has accepted applications for the legal recognition of religions. "They don't make any kind of assessment of what the beliefs are, and the association is not sanctioned by the state," Anders Backstrom, a professor of the sociology of religion at Uppsala University, told me. But the recognition of Kopimism, he said, is "a new situation. We haven't seen anything of its kind before."

The most comparable previous effort was in 2008, when Carlos Bebeacua, a Uruguayan artist living in Sweden, attempted to register the Church of the Madonna of the Orgasm. The Kammarkollegiet refused his application, and in 2010 the Administrative Court of Appeal upheld the rejection, arguing that the 'madonna' (but not the 'orgasm') part of the church's name would "cause offense not only in the broad groups of the population that have Christian roots, but also in society as a whole."

Kopimism apparently raised no such qualms. Or maybe the Kopimists are just better than the Orgasmists at filling out government paperwork. "It's exactly the same process as registering a business company," Professor Backstrom said. But he thinks it's unlikely that Kopimism's success will inspire a flood of new applications. "In Sweden, we have many small New Age groups, but most of them have made no effort to be recognized," he said. "Being recognized might mean they are opened to government scrutiny."

For the Missionary Church of Kopimism, which holds up privacy as one of its chief values, such scrutiny could be a big problem, and it's not clear what they'll gain from registration. "We don't really get any formal rights or benefits," Gerson said. "We can apply for the right to marry people. There is government aid we can apply for, but we have no such plans today. I don't, at least." Rick Falkvinge, the Pirate Party founder, speculated that if the Church incorporated the seal of confession into its rites, members could take advantage of the confidentiality that comes with certain privileged conversations. Generally, though, Sweden offers few legal exemptions for religious practice. No one, Gerson included, has any expectation that registration will exempt Church members from copyright law. "What the registration has done mostly is strengthen our identity," Gerson said. "I think it will be easier to find new members now that we're recognized."

I asked him if he'd seen a boost in converts since the news broke. "I actually haven't checked," he said. "If you want I could do it right now." There was a pause while he logged on to the registry: to join the Missionary Church of Kopimism simply requires filling out an online form, as easy as signing up for a mailing list. "Right now we have a little more than four thousand," he said, with no particular enthusiasm. "We got twelve hundred new members in the last week."

Gerson told me that religious persecution is a 'big concern' for the church's adherents. "We all fear going to court for copyright infringement," he said. This, of course, has been a worry for file-sharers long before it was formalized as a religion. What the Missionary Church of Kopimism has done is almost a reverse of how religious persecution usually works: whereas religions have often turned to protest because they feel persecuted, Gerson and his followers, feeling persecuted, turned to religion, in order to reframe and get attention for their protest. (It may sound silly to speak of file-sharing in terms of persecution, but when you think of the case of Thomas Drake, or of Bradley Manning, it seems a little less silly.) And Kopimism is hardly the only faith to have been inspired or shaped by a particular political cause. The Rastafari movement, for example, is as much an anti-colonial resistance movement as it is a religion.

When Gerson talks about Kopimism as a religion, his tone is good-humored, but he also comes off as disarmingly sincere. Even if this religious-registration business is just a bit of political theatre, there's no doubt that there’s an honestly and deeply held conviction at its core: the free exchange of information as a fundamental right. But is that enough to make it a genuine religion? When I asked Professor Backstrom, he hesitated. "Today you can believe in anything, so I suppose the idea of belief is a minor issue in a Northern European setting," he said. "Belief can be a very wide concept." He admitted, though, that he suspects that Kopimism is primarily an activist prank.

"I don't think it's a joke at all," Gerson told me. "I think that many religions have been ridiculed over the years. I don't think we're the first to experience it." The pirate movement's political arm, the Pirate Party, provides one possible future path for Kopimism. People didn't take the Pirate Party seriously at first, either. Then its membership exceeded that of the Green Party, and then the Liberal Party and the Christian Democrats, and then the Centre Party, and then the Young Pirates Association became the largest youth organization of any Swedish political party, and then several other parties and a number of prominent politicians shifted their stances on piracy in a more pirate-friendly direction, and then the Party spread to forty countries. Now the Pirate Party actually holds two seats in the European Parliament. These are early days for the Missionary Church of Kopimism. Who can say how far its gospel will spread?

 

Keep Religion Out of Public Life

It takes only a small spark to relight a smouldering fire. Such a spark was struck recently in Bideford town hall in north Devon: a few days ago a High Court judge ruled that it was unlawful for local councils to include Christian prayers in their formal meetings.

This was in response to a legal challenge from a former councillor and atheist, Clive Bone, in association with the campaigning National Secular Society. Bone had objected to the intrusion of Christianity into the corridors of power, humble though they might seem in Bideford.

This unimportant ruling was enough to rekindle the embers of Britain's faith wars. Eric Pickles, secretary of state for local government, blustered on the radio about this country's Christian heritage and how illiberal and intolerant this was and how the government would soon be changing it all.

Bishops and archbishops protested, predictably. Baroness Warsi, a Muslim, during a quasi official visit to the Pope, called on British society to resist the rising tide of 'militant secularism' and to fight for faith to have a place in public life. Quoting the Pope's fears regarding 'the increasing marginalisation of religion', she urged us to feel stronger in our religious identities, not least in Christianity.

The prime minister made his usual pro-faith noises. As the crackling of the fire grew louder, the Queen herself spoke out at Lambeth Palace in defence of all faiths, which would have surprised her forebear Henry VIII. She also said - with what anguish one can imagine - that Anglicanism has been commonly underappreciated and occasionally misunderstood.

Not only occasionally, according to Britain's most famous militant secularist, Richard Dawkins, who appeared again on the field of battle, or rather on the Today programme, arguing that most people who think they're Christians are wrong. Of those questioned in his Ipsos Mori poll, 54% said they considered themselves to be Christian but, when asked why, fewer than three in 10 said it was because they believed in the teachings of Christianity.

Rather than personal belief, the reasons of 72% were much more likely to be social, to do with the customs of their tribe - not that the poll used that phrase - surrounding birth, marriage, death and charity. Most hadn't looked at the Bible for a year or more and never prayed outside church at all. Predictably this caused an uproar.

Generations of unbelievers have not found it necessary to trash Christianity aggressively You get the impression, as usual, that Dawkins and the militant secularists all enjoy it hugely, although he himself was infuriated to be wrong-footed on air about the full title of Darwin's The Origin of Species.

All this is nasty and alarming. For generations in this tolerant country people of Christian background who are themselves unbelievers have not usually found it necessary, or polite, to trash Christianity aggressively in the inflammatory way of Dawkins and his supporters. I sense something mean-spirited in the extremes of his attacks, even though I agree with his views: he lacks something important that most people have or at least understand in others; 19th-century phrenologists would have called it the bump of religiosity.

A sense of the numinous, a longing for ceremony, a love of the religious punctuation of the year, a need for a regular time to examine one's conscience, a passion for church music - these are all things that appeal to Anglican unbelievers such as me and to unbelievers of all traditions. That is what lies behind Alain de Botton's grand schemes of cathedrals for the faithless, impossibly rational though they are.

Lord Rees, the astronomer royal, once expressed these feelings particularly well. An unbeliever who nonetheless goes to church, he said in an interview: "I share with religious people a concept of the mystery and wonder of the universe and even more of human life and therefore participate in religious services. Of course those I participate in are, as it were, the 'customs of my tribe' which happens to be the Church of England."

It is my tribe, too, and in many ways I have loved it, fearful of real religious faith though I am. Anglicanism is the tribe from which the highest ideals of modern, secular morality have evolved. So until recently I have been strongly against aggressive secularists in spirit, although I largely share their opinions. But things have changed rapidly. The terms of the conflict are quite different now. It is hardly an exaggeration to speak of faith wars.

It is a mystery to me why so many people in public life keep saying that faith is a good thing and we'd all be better off if we had more of it. That seems to me a very flabby-minded and sentimental assumption, arising from the limp-wristed Anglican tradition in which faith rarely amounted to anything remotely challenging to anyone.

Faith is not necessarily a good thing. Some faiths hold views that are repellent to most people and certainly to the indigenous Christian tribe. More importantly, faith itself is the problem. No one can argue with faith. If God or scripture says gays are wicked, or if someone believes her faith insists on a chador (even if she is mistaken), that is that.

Most faiths in Britain are actively competing for an acknowledged place in the public arena within the Establishment. If Anglicanism is an established part of the state, if this country is technically speaking a theocracy, why in the name of equality should not all other religions have a piece of the action too? That's the urgent but unspoken question. It is hard, however much one might fear the tenets of certain other faiths here, to think of any good reason why not.

That is what we are seeing. The growing number of sharia courts in this country is alarming. Yet the Archbishop of Canterbury has defended them. I can’t help suspecting his reason is that he is so anxious to insist that faith has a place in public life and so aware of the unfairness to other faiths of the status quo, that in logic he cannot help himself. Understandably this enrages the secularists and also the more moderate observers, who are alarmed by the incontrovertible tenets of certain faiths.

That is why, however obtuse and unattractive they may seem, the militant secularists are on the right side in the faith wars. It is why, however reluctantly, the polite and tolerant secularists will have to join them and win the war. There can be no place for faith anywhere at all within the political establishment, no privileged space within the public arena.

 

An Atheist Manifesto

 

Christianity In Crisis

 

The Jerusalem Syndrome

Why Some Religious Tourists Believe They Are the Messiah

Shortly after his 40th birthday, the life of a man we'll call Ronald Hodge took a strange turn. He still looked pretty good for his age. He had a well-paying job and a devoted wife. Or so he thought. Then, one morning, Hodge's wife told him she no longer loved him. She moved out the next day. A few weeks later, he was informed that his company was downsizing and that he would be let go. Not knowing where to turn, Hodge started going to church again.

Even though he'd been raised in an evangelical household, it had been years since Hodge had thought much about God. But now that everything seemed to be falling apart around him, he began attending services every week. Then every day. One night, while lying in bed, he opened the Bible and began reading. He'd been doing this every night since his wife left. And every time he did, he would see the same word staring back at him - the same four syllables that seemed to jump off the page as if they were printed in buzzing neon: Jerusalem. Hodge wasn't a superstitious man, he didn't believe in signs, but the frequency of it certainly felt like ... something. A week later, he was 30,000 feet over the Atlantic on an El Al jet to Israel.

When Hodge arrived in Jerusalem, he told the taxi driver to drop him off at the entrance to the Old City. He walked through the ancient, labyrinthine streets until he found a cheap hostel near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. He had a feeling that this was important. Supposedly built on top of the spot where Jesus Christ was crucified and three days later rose from the dead, the domed cathedral is the holiest site in Christendom. And Hodge knew that whatever called him to the Holy Land was emanating from there.

During his first few days in Jerusalem, Hodge rose early and headed straight to the church to pray. He got so lost in meditation that morning would slip into afternoon, afternoon into evening, until one of the bearded priests tapped him on the shoulder and told him it was time to go home. When he returned to his hostel, he would lie in bed unable to sleep. Thoughts raced through his head. Holy thoughts. That's when Hodge first heard the Voice.

Actually, heard is the wrong word. He felt it, resonating in his chest. It was like his body had become a giant tuning fork or a dowsing rod. Taking a cue from the sign of the cross that Catholics make when they pray, Hodge decided that if the vibrations came from the right side of his chest, it was the Holy Ghost communicating with him. If he felt them farther down, near the base of his sternum, it was the voice of Jesus. And if he felt the voice humming inside his head, it was the Holy Father, God himself, calling.

Soon, the vibrations turned into words, commanding him to fast for 40 days and 40 nights. None of this scared him. If anything, he felt a warm, soothing peace wash over him because he was finally being guided.

Not eating or drinking came easily at first. But after a week or so, the other backpackers at his hostel began to grow concerned. With good reason: Hodge's clothes were dirty and falling off of him. He had begun to emit a pungent, off-putting funk. He was acting erratically, hallucinating and singing the word Jesus over and over in a high-pitched chirp.

"Jesus ... Jesus ... Jesus ..."

Hodge camped out in the hostel's lobby and began introducing himself to one and all as the Messiah. Eventually, the manager of the hostel couldn't take it anymore. He didn't think the American calling himself Jesus was dangerous, but the guy was scaring away customers. Plus, he'd seen this kind of thing before. And he knew there was a man who could help.

Herzog Hospital sits on a steep, sun-baked hill on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Its sprawling grounds are dotted with tall cedars and aromatic olive trees. Five floors below the main level is the office of Pesach Lichtenberg, head of the men's division of psychiatry at Herzog.

Lichtenberg is 52 years old and thin, with glasses and a neatly trimmed beard. Born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, he moved to Israel in 1986 after graduating from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx and has worked at Herzog more or less ever since. It's here that he has become one of the world's leading experts on the peculiar form of madness that struck Ronald Hodge - a psychiatric phenomenon known as Jerusalem syndrome.

On a bright, late summer morning, Lichtenberg greets me in the chaotic lobby of the hospital, smiling and extending his hand. "You missed it!" he says. "We had a new Chosen One brought into the ward this morning." We go down to Lichtenberg's office; on top of a bookcase is a giant shofar, a curved ram's horn that religious Jews sound on the high holidays. A middle-aged British man under the doctor's care had used it to trumpet the Messiah's - that is to say, his own - coming. Lichtenberg explains that allowing me to meet his latest patient would violate hospital policy, and he can't discuss ongoing cases. He'll talk about past patients as long as I agree to de-identify them, as I did with Hodge. "But," he adds, "that doesn't mean we can't try to find a messiah of our own. In a few days, we'll take a walk around the Old City and maybe we'll find one for you there."

There's a joke in psychiatry: If you talk to God, it's called praying; if God talks to you, you're nuts. In Jerusalem, God seems to be particularly chatty around Easter, Passover, and Christmas - the peak seasons for the syndrome. It affects an estimated 50 to 100 tourists each year, the overwhelming majority of whom are evangelical Christians. Some of these cases simply involve tourists becoming momentarily overwhelmed by the religious history of the Holy City, finding themselves discombobulated after an afternoon at the Wailing Wall or experiencing a tsunami of obsessive thoughts after walking the Stations of the Cross. But more severe cases can lead otherwise normal housewives from Dallas or healthy tool-and-die manufacturers from Toledo to hear the voices of angels or fashion the bedsheets of their hotel rooms into makeshift togas and disappear into the Old City babbling prophecy.

Lichtenberg estimates that, in two decades at Herzog, the number of false prophets and self-appointed redeemers he has treated is in the low three figures. In other words, if and when the true Messiah does return (or show up for the first time, depending on what you believe), Lichtenberg is in an ideal spot to be the guy who greets Him.

"Jerusalem is an insane place," one anthropologist says. "It overwhelms people."

While it's tempting to blame the syndrome on Israel's holiest city, that wouldn't be fair. At least, not completely. "It's just the trigger," says Yoram Bilu, an Israeli psychological anthropologist at the University of Chicago Divinity School. "The majority of people who suffer from Jerusalem syndrome have some psychiatric history before they get here." The syndrome doesn't show up in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but it and its kissing cousins are well-known to clinicians. For example, there's Stendhal syndrome, in which visitors to Florence are overwhelmed by powerful works of art. First described in the early 19th century in Stendhal's Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio, the disorder can lead to spontaneous fainting, confusion, and hallucinations. Paris syndrome, first described in 1986, is characterized by acute delusions in visitors to the City of Light and for some reason seems to preferentially affect Japanese tourists. Place, it seems, can have a profound effect on the mind.

What's actually happening in the brain, though, isn't completely clear. Faith isn't easy to categorize or study. Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, has conducted several brain-imaging studies of people in moments of extreme devotion. The limbic system, the center for our emotions, begins to show much higher activity, while the frontal lobes, which might ordinarily calm people, start to shut down. "In extreme cases, that can lead to hallucinations, where someone might believe they're seeing the face of God or hearing voices," Newberg says. "Your frontal lobe isn't there to say, 'Hey, this doesn't sound like a good idea.' And the person winds up engaging in behaviors that are not their norm."

The psychosis typical of Jerusalem syndrome develops gradually. At first the victim may begin to feel symptoms of anxiety, nervousness, and insomnia. The next day, there may be a compulsive urge to break away from the rest of the tour group and visit holy places like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre or the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Sufferers might follow this with a series of purification rituals such as shaving all of their body hair, clipping their nails, or washing themselves free of earthly impurities. The afflicted may then venture into the Old City to shout confused sermons claiming that redemption is at hand. In some cases, victims believe they are merely a cog in an ineffable process, helping to set the stage for the Messiah's return with some small task they've been given. In more extreme cases, they can be swept up by psychotic delusions so intense, so ornate, that they become convinced they are Jesus Christ. "Jerusalem is an insane place in some ways. It overwhelms people, and it has for centuries," Bilu says. "The city is seductive, and people who are highly suggestible can succumb to this seduction. I'm always envious of people who live in San Diego, where history barely exists."

In other words, what you can blame Jerusalem for is looking like, well, Jerusalem. The Old City is a mosaic of sacred spaces, from the al-Aqsa Mosque to the Western Wall of the Temple Mount to the well-trodden stones on which Jesus supposedly walked. Like every city, it's the combination of architecture and storytelling that makes Jerusalem more than just a crossroads. Great cities, the places that feel significant and important when you walk their streets, always rely on stagecraft - a deftly curving road, finely wrought facades, or a high concentration of light-up signage can all impart a sense of place, of significance. This architectural trickery can even instill a feeling of the sacred. The colonnades around St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, the rock garden at Ryoanji temple in Kyoto, and the pillars at the Jamarat Bridge near Mecca all shoot laser beams of transcendence into the brain of a properly primed visitor. "Part of the experience of going to these places is the interweaving of past and present," says Karla Britton, an architectural historian at the Yale School of Architecture. "There's a collapse of time. And for some people who visit these sacred sights and spaces, this collapse can be psychologically disorienting. The whole act of pilgrimage is deliberately intended as a kind of disorientation."

That in and of itself doesn't make someone crazy. "There are a lot of people who come to Israel and feel God's presence, and there's nothing wrong with that," Lichtenberg says. "That's called, at the very least, a good vacation. God forbid a psychiatrist sticks his nose into something like that." He smiles and rubs his beard. "But the question is, at what point is belief OK and at what point is it not OK? If someone says, 'I believe in God,' OK. And if they say, 'I believe the Messiah will come,' fine. And if they say, 'I believe His coming is imminent,' you think, well, that's a man of real faith. But if they then say, 'And I know who it is! I can name names!' you go, wait a second - hold on!"

When people with Jerusalem syndrome show up at the hospital, doctors often just let them unspool their stories, however strange the narratives may seem. If the people aren't dangerous, they are usually discharged. Violent patients might be medicated and kept under observation pending contact with their family or consulate. After all, the most effective treatment when it comes to Jerusalem syndrome is often pretty simple: Get the person the hell out of Jerusalem. "The syndrome is a brief but intense break with reality that is place-related," Bilu says. "When the person leaves Jerusalem, the symptoms subside."

Lichtenberg didn't know any of this when he started at Herzog. Then, shortly after he began his residency in the late 1980s, he met a 35-year-old Christian woman from Germany. She was single and traveling alone in Israel. He remembers her as being gaunt, prematurely gray, and highly educated. The police had picked her up in the Old City for badgering tourists about the Lord's return. "She arrived in a state of bliss because she believed the Messiah was coming," Lichtenberg says. "I probably thought, she's just meshuggeneh."

Over the next few days, Lichtenberg underwent a transformation of his own. He became obsessed with the German woman's case. He thought about how she would ricochet from periods of giddy rapture to moments of outright hostility and confusion. During her more manic moments, she wanted to share the Good News with the doctor. In her more depressive ones, she wandered the psychiatric ward desperately trying to hear the voices in her head that had gone momentarily silent. She would rub her temples as if she could dial in the voice of God, like someone trying to tune in a far-off radio station.

The woman stayed at the hospital for a month, until the doctor could arrange for her to be sent home. Lichtenberg has no idea what happened to her after she returned to Germany, but more than 20 years later he can still recall the smallest details of her case. "It was so interesting talking to her, but I was also a little embarrassed because there was no one at the hospital to encourage that sort of thing back then. At the time, the thinking here was more like, OK, what dosage is she getting? Should we increase it?"

This way of thinking is more sympathetic than many psychiatrists would call for. Actually, it wasn't that long ago that one respected Israeli physician put two patients who both claimed to be the Messiah in a room together just to see what would happen. Each rabidly accused the other of being an impostor, barking fire-and-brimstone threats.

Self-styled prophets have been journeying to Jerusalem on messianic vision quests for centuries. A certain Nazarene carpenter was merely the most charismatic and most written about. But it wasn't until the 1930s that an Israeli psychiatrist named Heinz Herman clinically described Jerusalem syndrome for the first time. One of his early cases involved an Englishwoman who was so convinced the Second Coming was at hand that she climbed to the top of Jerusalem's Mt. Scopus every morning with a cup of tea to welcome the Lord.

Most cases are harmless, but there have been disturbing exceptions. In 1969 an Australian tourist named Denis Michael Rohan was so overwhelmed by what he believed to be his God-given mission that he set fire to the al-Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam's most sacred sites, which sits atop the Temple Mount directly above the Wailing Wall. The blaze led to rioting throughout the city. Rohan later said that he had to clear the site of "abominations" so it would be cleansed for the Second Coming. (The mosque was rebuilt by a Saudi construction company owned by Osama bin Laden's father.)

More recently, an American man became so convinced he was Samson that he tried - and failed - to move a block of the Wailing Wall. An American woman came to believe she was the Virgin Mary and went to nearby Bethlehem to search for her baby, Jesus. And a few years ago, the Israeli press reported on a 38-year-old American tourist who, after spending 10 days in Israel, began roaming the surrounding hills muttering about Jesus. Shortly after being hospitalized, he jumped off a 13-foot-high walkway near the emergency room, breaking several ribs and puncturing his lung.

Lichtenberg says that during times of uncertainty and conflict (not infrequent in Israel), admissions to his ward spike. For example, in late 1999, when the rest of the world quaintly panicked about the Y2K bug and whether they'd be able to use their ATMs on January 1, Israel was on high alert, afraid that deranged religious crazies would flock to Jerusalem in anticipation of a millennial apocalypse. At the peak, five patients a week were brought into Lichtenberg's ward. The country's defense forces were concerned that someone would try to blow up the al-Aqsa Mosque, finishing the job Rohan started 30 years earlier.

 

What The Daily Show Teaches About Religion

As difficult as it is to find good writing about religion, it is harder still to find good television about religion. Most televangelists do not do good (challenging, nuanced) religious television: one of their goals may be to educate, or win converts, but they have to raise money, and offering sophisticated portraits of religion is as likely to close people's wallets as open them. Religious television series tend to be unwatchable: no Touched by an Angel for me. And talk-show hosts are rarely any better when it comes to religion. The skepticism of Bill Maher can be as simplistic as the basest prosperity gospel, and we should all be glad that the eager gullibility of Oprah is now quarantined on her own network. Except for public television's Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, it is hard to find intelligent talk about religion on TV.

Except for Jon Stewart, that is. The secular Jewish comedian, host of Comedy Central's The Daily Show, covers religion often, but more important, he covers it well. Stewart seems to genuinely enjoy interviewing religious figures, whether of the left (like Sojourners magazine's Jim Wallis) or the right (like pseudo-historian, political advisor and textbook consultant David Barton). Some of The Daily Show's best sketches deal with religion, and his writers and multi-ethnic cast - including one of the few recognizable Muslim comedians in America, Aasif Mandvi - frequently move beyond satire. They are often funny, but just as often smart.

Above all, however, Stewart and his writers do two things that make them unique on popular television. First, they cover - and yes, I would say "cover," not just satirize or mock - a wide range of religions. If you watched only The Daily Show, you would nonetheless learn, in time, about Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and a whole spectrum of smaller faiths, a category that I would argue includes atheism. And second, they pay attention to points of theology that more traditional news and talk shows skip over. Using chunks of time that would be unthinkable on a network newscast - six minutes for a segment on Mormonism! - The Daily Show teaches the finer points of belief, mining them for humor but at the same time serving a real educational function.

Stewart comes at religion with buckets of derision, but I do not find him offensive, nor should anyone who enjoys comedy. Like so many of the best comedians, he is an equal-opportunity hater. Sometimes it's atheists he cannot stand, as in his bit about the beams in a shape of the cross that survived the Ground Zero wreckage, which the American Atheists did not want displayed. Sometimes it's the Catholic church, which last November proved a useful point of comparison for the football culture at Penn State: "I get that it's probably hard for you to believe that this guy you think is infallible, and this program you think is sacred, could hide such heinous activities, but there is some precedent for that," Stewart said, referring to coach Joe Paterno and the sex-abuse scandal. "Yeah, and just like with the Catholic Church, no one is trying to take away your religion, in this case football. They're just trying to bring some accountability to a pope, and some of his cardinals." In both cases, it was the culture of certainty that Stewart was mocking, not the belief system itself. It was the human tendency toward hubris.

But of course belief systems are fair game, too. In fact, Stewart and his writers have realized that good theology - getting people's beliefs right - happens to make for good humor. Consider a bit that aired last October, in which Stewart interviewed cast members Samantha Bee and Wyatt Cenac on the differences between Mormonism and traditional Christianity. Bee, a fair-complected Canadian, was playing a Mormon, wearing a shirt that said "Team Mormon"; and Cenac, a black man of Haitian ancestry, was wearing a shirt that said "Team Normal." Bee began by complaining about the tee shirts they were made to wear: "Why is Wyatt 'Team Normal'? That implies that Mormons aren't normal ... We are not a cult. Mormonism is a proud religion founded by a great man who was guided by the Angel Moroni to golden plates buried in upstate New York that he placed in the bottom of a hat where he read them using a seer stone."

Matters devolved from there. Team Mormon and Team Normal began arguing about which group is crazier: the one that believes Jesus was born of a virgin and the Holy Ghost, and that he rose from the dead and ascended to Heaven, or the one that believes all that plus the story that he then returned to Missouri. Jon Stewart intercedes, saying that both Bee and Cenac seem happy to suspend disbelief when it comes to the basic tenets of the New Testament. Both Bee and Cenac then take license to turn on Stewart, for being an adherent to a religion in which "it's normal to hang out in someone's living room and watch a guy with a beard cut off a baby's penis while everyone eats pound cake!" (as Bee puts it). The bit is as comedically deft as it is religiously shrewd: how often do we catch ourselves rolling our eyes at someone else's belief system, only to realize at the last second that we believe some crazy things ourselves? In that regard, Stewart is a stand-in for all of us, enjoying some fun at the expense of other religions until the gods of dramatic irony hold a mirror to his face.

And except for the fact that circumcision doesn't involve the whole penis ("In my defense," Stewart says, "it's just the tip, and the cake is incredibly moist"), the dialogue is exceptionally accurate about all three religions: traditional Christianity, Latter-day Saint practices, and Judaism. The Mormons' special underwear is played for laughs, it's true - but the point is that Stewart and his writers convey more specifics about religious practice in less than four minutes than any documentary or nightly-news segment I've ever seen.

And the implicit message is one that religion scholars are always trying to convey: all religions have beliefs that seem bizarre to outsiders, and “cult” is often just a word to describe the other guy’s religion. The Daily Show approaches American religion in the spirit of tolerance, but not with the wimpy, eager-to-please hand-wringing that characterizes so much liberal dialogue in this country. Rather, religions are shown to be strange and possibly cringe-inducing: our job is to take an honest look, then tolerate them anyway. It’s a call to rigorous citizenship.

At some point, every one of Stewart’s regulars is called upon to represent a different religious group — Mandvi is often the Muslim, Cenac the Christian, and in one episode the Englishman John Oliver tries to claim Halifax, Nova Scotia, as a new holy site for Jews (“Challahfax” — although according to Mandvi, who is trying to claim the site for Muslims, it is pronounced “Halalifax”). The cast is like a merry band of religious satirists, with a joke for every faith playing in their repertory.

Stewart himself has said very little about his own Judaism, although he is clearly non-practicing by most any definition: he has gone to work, and recorded shows, on the High Holidays, for example. The writer Marty Kaplan tells the story of moderating a forum about why Jews who don’t believe go to synagogue on the holidays: “At one point, a congregant, without prompting, told the room that Stewart didn’t take the High Holy Days off,” Kaplan writes. “His tone was a mixture of anger and disappointment, the kind of sentiment someone might feel about a misguided family member.” And it so happens that I think Stewart’s humor might even be stronger, more durable, if it weren’t all quite so frivolous to him. For example, the writer Shalom Auslander, who was raised very religiously, is capable of a kind of enduring, deeply poignant satire that is beyond Stewart. Similarly, I suspect that Stephen Colbert, erstwhile Daily Show cast member and now host of The Colbert Report, has comedic hues that come from his Catholic religiosity, which he speaks openly about.

But if Stewart is himself indifferent to religion, he is clearly not bitter about it. There is no apparent ideology, either religious or skeptical, animating Stewart’s treatment of religion. More than anything, he and his writers have the scrupulosity of objective journalists. They win laughs without deforming, or even exaggerating, the religion’s actual beliefs. This is an extraordinary feat. Most religious humor, especially on television or in the movies, depends on stereotypes, which are by definition crude and reductive. Stewart’s writers, by contrast, find humor in the specifics of each faith. They would rather laugh at the finer points of belief than stick pins in some caricature. When they are especially fortunate, they can describe a faith through its antagonists — while making those antagonists look ridiculous. Here I am thinking of a segment from 2010, in which Wyatt Cenac interviewed a Muslim woman whose application to be a foster mother was rejected because she would not allow pork products in her house. He made the foster agency look absurd and bigoted, and he helped explain Muslim dietary practices to the audience.

Especially when taken out of context, disembedded from the civilizations and cultures in which they make sense, religious claims are frequently of the bizarre sort that no sane person ought to believe. Humor actually proves to be one of the best devices to help skeptics or the uninitiated talk about religion. And it offers a great litmus test for believers: how confident are you in your beliefs? After all, no confident believer should be afraid to chuckle about religion’s seeming absurdities — just as no mirthful human being should pass up the chance to laugh along with the unbeliever. The Daily Show has more fun with religion than any show on television — more fun, in fact, than many religious people have in their own observance. Jon Stewart may not be a believer —he did boast that he had a bacon croissanwich for Passover — but he is one hell of a teacher.

 

Absolutist Morality

 

Nuns on the Frontier

 

Bishops' World

 

Is Free Will An Illusion

 

Why Cults Are Mindless

 

The Catholic Church and Money

 

God Loves Misery

 

God's Fanatics Are Back

 

The Problem With Hell

 

Creationist Education

 

Science vs Rel Time Mag 2006

 

 

5 Biblical Misconceptions

 

Doomsday Thinking

 

The Decline of Evangelical America

 

Why Priests Quit

 

Atheist Church

 

What Atheists Can Learn From Religion

 

Organ Donors and Religion

 

Fundies

 

Heaven or Hallucinations?

 

Violent Fanatics

 

Autistic children are atheists

 

William Lane Craig

 

Christian Atheism

 

Conservatives Try To Deal With Gay Marriage

 

Fundamentalists and Scholarship

 

Superman and Saints

 

 

 

Woo Woo Thinking

 

Tax Churches

 

    

 

Conservative Christians and Trans-Genders

 

    

 

Evangelicals and End Times

 

    

 

Noah's Ark Was Unpossible

 

    

 

When did the church accept that the Earth moves around the sun?

 

    

 

Beliefs Always Trump Facts

Yale law school professor Dan Kahan's new research paper is called "Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government," but for me a better title is the headline on science writer Chris Mooney's piece about it in Grist: "Science Confirms: Politics Wrecks Your Ability to Do Math."

Kahan conducted some ingenious experiments about the impact of political passion on people's ability to think clearly. His conclusion, in Mooney's words: partisanship "can even undermine our very basic reasoning skills.... [People] who are otherwise very good at math may totally flunk a problem that they would otherwise probably be able to solve, simply because giving the right answer goes against their political beliefs."

In other words, say goodnight to the dream that education, journalism, scientific evidence, media literacy or reason can provide the tools and information that people need in order to make good decisions. It turns out that in the public realm, a lack of information isn't the real problem. The hurdle is how our minds work, no matter how smart we think we are. We want to believe we're rational, but reason turns out to be the ex post facto way we rationalize what our emotions already want to believe.

For years my go-to source for downer studies of how our hard-wiring makes democracy hopeless has been Brendan Nyhan, an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth.

Nyan and his collaborators have been running experiments trying to answer this terrifying question about American voters: Do facts matter?

The answer, basically, is no. When people are misinformed, giving them facts to correct those errors only makes them cling to their beliefs more tenaciously.

Here's some of what Nyhan found:

People who thought WMDs were found in Iraq believed that misinformation even more strongly when they were shown a news story correcting it.

People who thought George W. Bush banned all stem cell research kept thinking he did that even after they were shown an article saying that only some federally funded stem cell work was stopped.

People who said the economy was the most important issue to them, and who disapproved of Obama's economic record, were shown a graph of nonfarm employment over the prior year - a rising line, adding about a million jobs. They were asked whether the number of people with jobs had gone up, down or stayed about the same. Many, looking straight at the graph, said down.

But if, before they were shown the graph, they were asked to write a few sentences about an experience that made them feel good about themselves, a significant number of them changed their minds about the economy. If you spend a few minutes affirming your self-worth, you're more likely to say that the number of jobs increased. In Kahan's experiment, some people were asked to interpret a table of numbers about whether a skin cream reduced rashes, and some people were asked to interpret a different table -- containing the same numbers -- about whether a law banning private citizens from carrying concealed handguns reduced crime.

Kahan found that when the numbers in the table conflicted with people's positions on gun control, they couldn't do the math right, though they could when the subject was skin cream. The bleakest finding was that the more advanced that people's math skills were, the more likely it was that their political views, whether liberal or conservative, made them less able to solve the math problem.

I hate what this implies -- not only about gun control, but also about other contentious issues, like climate change. I'm not completely ready to give up on the idea that disputes over facts can be resolved by evidence, but you have to admit that things aren't looking so good for reason. I keep hoping that one more photo of an iceberg the size of Manhattan calving off of Greenland, one more stretch of record-breaking heat and drought and fires, one more graph of how atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen in the past century, will do the trick. But what these studies of how our minds work suggest is that the political judgments we've already made are impervious to facts that contradict us.

Maybe climate change denial isn't the right term; it implies a psychological disorder. Denial is business-as-usual for our brains. More and better facts don't turn low-information voters into well-equipped citizens. It just makes them more committed to their misperceptions. In the entire history of the universe, no Fox News viewers ever changed their minds because some new data upended their thinking. When there's a conflict between partisan beliefs and plain evidence, it's the beliefs that win. The power of emotion over reason isn't a bug in our human operating systems, it's a feature.

 

The Problem With Religious Rules

 

    

 

Richard Dawkins

 

    

 

Matthew Parris on Richard Dawkins

 

    

 

Britain: Religion and the Law

 

    

 

What They Do, Not What They Believe

 

    

 

Scientology

 

    

 

Separation of Church and State

 

    

 

Declining Evangelicalism

 

    

 

What Is The Religious Argument Against Atheism?

 

    

 

Atheist Survived Tornado

 

    

 

Cargo Cults

 

    

 

The Lessons of the Flood Stories

 

    

 

DIY - Invent Your Own

 

    

 

Why is it so hard for Christians to understand evolution?

 

    

 

Richard Dawkins Interview

 

    

 

When Can Society Overrule Religion?

 

    

 

The Religious Right and Birth Control

 

    

 

Bill Gates on Religion

 

    

 

Noah and Fundamentalists

 

    

 

Mormon Teaching

 

    

 

What Is A 'Christian' Nation?

 

    

 

11 reasons why Jesus is not coming back...

 

    

 

Biblical Marriage

 

    

 

The Onion: 9/11 Hijackers In Hell

 

    

 

Old Earth Is Heresy

 

    

 

Losing Our Religion

 

    

 

Religious Apathy

 

    

 

Religious Extremism

 

    

 

Catholics and Contraceptives

 

    

 

Tea Party Is A Religious Movement

 

    

 

Glasshouses

 

    

 

Intolerance

 

    

 

Bible Literalists

 

    

 

The Church of War

 

    

 

Tribes

 

    

 

Surrogacy To Split The Religious Right

 

    

 

A Game for Good Christians

 

    

 

Exodus - a myth

 

 

    

 

Religion and The Rich In America

 

    

 

God and Philosophy

 

    

 

Cain and Abel and Justice

 

    

 

Leaving Closed Communities

 

    

 

Evangelicals and Pop Culture

 

    

 

Crackpot But Irrefutable

 

    

 

Did Jesus Save the Klingons?

 

    

 

Jerusalem

 

    

 

Adam and Eve

 

    

 

Religious Fatties

 

    

 

Religions Will Die Out

 

    

 

Pope Francis and Doorways

 

    

 

Religion Is No Sacred Cow

 

    

 

Scientology

 

    

 

Religious Exemptions

 

    

 

Offending Religions

 

    

 

The Violence of Religious Reformations

 

    

 

Evangelicals For Israel

 

    

 

How Scientology Fights Critics

 

    

 

Sabbath Rules Kill Kids

 

    

 

Zodiac Signs Out Of Whack

 

    

 

Scientology Losing Control

 

    

 

(Pro) Wrestling and Religion (They're both fake)

 

    

 

Neil deGrasse Tyson

 

    

 

Religion Based Bigotry

 

    

 

Heaven Visit Literature

 

    

 

The Patriarchy and The Role of Women

 

    

 

Hard-Wired For Supernatural Explanations?

 

    

 

Conservatives think there's a global war against Xity

 

    

 

Miracle-Busting Science

 

    

 

Irish Catholic Church

 

    

 

Questioning Mohammed

 

    

 

Christian Terrorists

 

    

 

The First Church of Cannabis

 

    

 

Christians are just too gullible

 

    

 

Why Christians Feel Persecuted

 

    

 

Kim Davis and Need For Militant Atheism

 

    

 

Searching For Meaning

 

    

 

Disappearing MidEast Religions

 

    

 

The War On Religion

 

    

 

Why Radical Islam Appeals

 

    

 

Christians and Porn

 

 

 

The Evangelical Brand

 

Back before 9/11 indelibly linked Islam with terrorism, back before the top association to “Catholic priest” was “pedophile,” most Americans—even nonreligious Americans—thought of religion as benign. I’m not religious myself, people would say, but what’s the harm if it gives someone else a little comfort or pleasure.

 

Back then, people associated Christianity with kindness and said things like, “That’s not very Christian of him,” when a person acted stingy or mean; and nobody except Evangelical Christians knew the difference between Evangelicalism and more open, inquiring forms of Christianity.

 

Those days are over. Islam will be forever tainted by Islamist brutalities, by images of bombings, beheadings and burkas. The collar and cassock will forever evoke the image of bishops turning their backs while priests rub themselves on altar boys. And thanks to the fact that American Evangelical leaders sold their congregations to the Republican Party in exchange for political power, Evangelical Christianity is now distinctive—and widely despised.

Another way to put this is that the Evangelical “brand” has gone from being an asset to a liability, and it is helpful to understand the transition in precisely those terms.

 

How Brand Assets Get Depleted

 

In the business world, a corporation sometimes buys or licenses a premium brand in order to either upgrade their own brand desirability or to sell a lower quality product. Coca-Cola acquired Odwalla. Dean Foods acquired Silk soy milk. Target and Walmart license various designer labels for their made-in-China housewares and clothes. Donald Trump sells his name to real estate developers who use it to set an expectation of quality.

 

Once a premium brand or label is acquired, the parent company often uses the premium label to sell an inferior product. Alternately, if they acquired the whole company rather than just the name, they may gradually change the product, ratcheting down input costs (and quality) to the point that the premium brand becomes just another commodity. The profit advantage comes from the fact that it takes people a while to notice and change their brand perceptions. Also, being creatures of habit, a person may stick with a familiar brand even though the quality of the product itself has changed. In this way, a corporation can draw down the value of a brand the way that a person might draw down a bank account.

 

Republican Acquisition of the Evangelical “Brand”

 

A generation ago, the Republican Party realized that Evangelical Christianity could be a valuable acquisition. “Evangelical” had righteous, “family values” brand associations, the unassailable name of Jesus, the authority of the Bible, and the organizing infrastructure and social capital of Evangelical churches. Republican operatives courted Evangelical leaders and promised them power and money—the power to turn back the clock on equal rights for women and queers, and the glitter of government subsidies for church enterprises including religious education, real estate speculation, and marketing campaigns that pair social services with evangelism.

 

As in any story about selling your soul, Evangelical leaders largely got what they bargained for, but at a price that only the devil fully understood in advance. Internally, Evangelical communities can be wonderfully kind, generous and mutually supportive. But today, few people other than Evangelical Christians themselves associate the term “Evangelical” with words like generous and kind. In fact, a secular person is likely to see a kind, generous Evangelical neighbor as a decent person in spite of their Christian beliefs, not because of them.

 

The Evangelical brand is so depleted and tainted at this point that Russell Moore, a prominent leader of the Southern Baptist Convention recently said that he will no longer call himself an “Evangelical Christian,” thanks—he implied—to association between Evangelicals and Trump. Instead he is using the term “Gospel Christian”—at least till the 2016 election is over. While Trump has received endorsements from Evangelical icons including Jerry Falwell, Jr. and Pat Robertson, other Evangelical leaders (e.g. herehere) have joined Moore in lamenting the deep and wide Evangelical attraction to Trump, which they say is antithetical to their values.

 

But how much, really, is the Trump brand antithetical to the Evangelical brand?Humanist commentator James Croft argues that Trump is what Evangelicalism, in the hands of the Religious Right, has become:

“The religious right in America has always been a political philosophy based on bullying, pandering, projecting strength to hide fear and weakness, and proud, aggressive ignorance. That’s what it’s been about from the beginning. Trump has merely distilled those elements into a decoction so deadly that even some evangelicals are starting to recognize the venom they have injected into American culture.”

 

Croft says that Pastors like Joel Osteen and Rick Warren use Jesus as a fig leaf “to drape over social views that would otherwise be revealed as nakedly evil.” As a former Evangelical, I have to side with Croft: the Evangelical brand problem is much bigger than Trump and his candidacy or the morally-bankrupt priorities and theocratic aspirations of fellow Republican candidates Cruz and Rubio. Evangelicals may use the name of Jesus for cover, but even Jesus is too small a fig leaf to hide the fact outsiders looking at Evangelical Christianity see more prick than heart.

 

Here is what the Evangelical brand looks like from the outside:

 

Evangelical means obsessed with sex. Evangelicals are so desperate to fend off their own complicated sexual desires and self-loathing that they would rather watch queer teens commit suicide than deal with their homophobia. They abhor youth sexuality and female sexual pleasure to the point that they have driven an epidemic of teen pregnancy, unintended pregnancy and abortion—all because accurate information and contraceptive access might let the wrong kind of people (young unmarried and female people) have sex for the wrong reasons (pleasure and intimacy) without suffering for it.

 

Evangelical means arrogant. Wheaton College put Evangelical arrogance on national display when administrators decided to suspend and then fire a professor who dared to suggest that Muslims, Jews and Christians all worship the same God.

 

Evangelical means fearful and bigoted. While more secular Europeans and Canadians offer aid to Syrian refugees, Evangelical Christians have instead sought to exclude Muslims. They have used their vast empire of telecommunications channels to inspire not charity but fear of imminent Sharia in the U.S. and of refugees more broadly. They have urged that Latin American refugees be sent home so that we can build a wall across the southern border before they come back.

 

Evangelical means indifferent to truth. Evangelicals refuse to acknowledge what isobvious to everyone else, including most other Christians—that the Bible is a human document woven through with moral and factual imperfections. Treating the Bible like the literally perfect word of God has forced Bible believers to make a high art out of self-deception, which they then apply to other inconvenient truths. They rewrite American History, embrace faux news, defend in court the right of “Crisis Pregnancy Centers” to lie, and force doctors to do the same. The end justifies the means.

 

Evangelical means gullible and greedy. From televangelists and Prosperity Gospel to adulation of Ronald Reagan and Ayn Rand, Evangelicalism faces the world as a religion of exploiters and exploited—both of which are hoping to make a quick buck.

 

Evangelical means ignorant. The only way to protect creationism is to keep people from understanding how science works and what scientists have discovered. As evidence accumulates related to evolutionary biology, insulating children requires a constant battle to keep accurate information out of textbooks. Insulating adults requires cultivating a deep suspicion of science and scholarship, an anti-intellectualism that diffuses out from this center and defines Evangelical culture at large.

Evangelical means predatory. Evangelical missionaries prey on the young and ignorant. They have fought all the way to the Supreme Court to ensure they can proselytize children in public grade schools. Having failed to block marriage equality in the States, they export Bible based gay-hate to Central Africa, where gays are more vulnerable. Since Americans lost interest in tent revivals, evangelists now cast out demons, heal the sick and raise the dead among uneducated low-information people in developing countries.

 

Evangelical means mean. Opposing anti-poverty programs, shaming and stigmatizing queers, making it harder for poor women to prevent pregnancy, blaming rape victims,diverting aid dollars into church coffers, threatening little kids with eternal torture, supporting war, denying the rights of other species, . . . need I go on?

 

Laid out like this—sex-obsessed, arrogant, bigoted, lying, greedy, ignorant, predatory and mean—one understands why a commentator like Croft might say that Trump isEvangelicalism. But reading closer, it becomes clear that Trump and Cruz and Rubio are not the problem.

 

The Evangelical brand is toxic because of the stagnant priorities and behaviors of Evangelicals themselves. Desperate to safeguard an archaic set of social and theological agreements, Evangelical leaders bet that if they could secure political power they could force a halt to moral and spiritual evolution. They themselves wouldn’t have to grow and change.

They also believed that they could get something for nothing, that they could sell their brand and keep it too. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

 

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