bookmark_borderReverend Questions Church and State Entanglement

There’s a great article in today’s New York Times entitled “Disowning Conservative Politics, Evangelical Pastor Rattles Flock,” (Jul 30, A1, A21). It tells how Rev. Gregory A. Boyd of the Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, recently gave a series of sermons that essentially argued against coupling politics and religion. Or more specifically, the Republican Party from Christianity. What makes this story interesting is that Woodland Hills is an evangelical megachurch with more than 6,000 congregants.

According to the Times:

“He said he first became alarmed while visiting another megachurch’s worship service on a Fourth of July years ago. The service finished with the chorus singing “God Bless America” and a video of fighter jets flying over a hill silhouetted with crosses.”

This anecdote sounds like the stuff of fiction. Yet, we infidels have known for quite some time now that jingoism and nationalistic propaganda has followed closely behind the religious conservative movement. And evangelicals have been successful at taking over whole institutions. The Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs has been all but taken over by evangelical Christians with predictable results: cadets who did not attend chapel after dinner were officially segregated and referred to as “heathens” [link].

One could be impolite and see a creeping fascism in all of this. For his part, Boyd thinks there are “Christians on both the left and the right who had turned politics and patriotism into idolatry.” He goes on to say:

“America wasn’t founded as a theocracy,” he said. “America was founded by people trying to escape theocracies. Never in history have we had a Christian theocracy where it wasn’t bloody and barbaric. That’s why our Constitution wisely put in a separation of church and state.

I am sorry to tell you,” he continued, “that America is not the light of the world and the hope of the world. The light of the world and the hope of the world is Jesus Christ.”

And perhaps that’s the best way to put it if you’re coming from a Christian perspective rather than a secular one. After all, Jesus was a social prophet concerned with the kingdom of God rather than the world. For hundreds of years Christians have understood Jesus’s famous dictum to “render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s” as an ambivalence toward empire and secular power (Mk. 12:13-17). Although it’s unclear in this passage — after all Jesus was evading a riddle put to him by his enemies — it’s possible that Jesus was wise enough to understand that linking the fortunes of the devout to that of the state was a double-edged sword. If the empire crumbles, then the Church’s credibility goes down with it.

The Catholic Church learned this lesson the hard way. After the election of the new Chancellor of Germany in 1933, the Vatican was eager to enter into negotiations with Hitler’s new government. Led by Eugenio Pacelli (later Pope Pius XII in 1939) the Vatican saw in Hitler a strong antidote against Communism. The result was the Reichskonkordat, a treaty signed in 1933 in which among other things the Church agreed that its bishops in Germany would swear an oath of allegiance to the state and the state would raise taxes to support the church. This agreement is now considered by historians to have greatly enhanced the prestige of Hitler in the international community.

Pacelli was either horribly naive about Hitler’s intent or himself anti-Semitic depending upon whom you believe. But the point here is that entanglement with the state can often backfire on believers. It looks to me like Boyd has the wisdom to see that the evangelical community has gone too far in conflating the church with the state.


An iPod is a wonderful thing for long car trips. So this past week I listened to a podcast of a debate on the Infidel Guy radio show. It was an hour and a half long and often exasperating, so I wouldn’t have sat through it otherwise. The debate was between FFRF‘s Dan Barker and Paul Manata, a Christian and presuppositionalist.

Anyway, let me get to the exasperating part. The whole thing made me wonder if it’s at all useful to even try and talk to some people, and presuppositionalists like Manata might be a good example of people with whom I’d have a very hard time to get any dialogue going. I don’t mean that Manata came across as especially irrational or pigheaded or anything (a perfectly sane and nice guy, as far as I can tell) — it’s more interesting than that. It’s that I see very little common ground that could help us start a fruitful discussion. It would be too much work to get to anything more than a few preliminaries.

Manata, like many presuppositionalists (and quite a few other styles of theistic apologists as well) sounded like we would not share much of a common idea of rationality, truth, what have you. In particular, he seemed very enamored of a traditional style of armchair philosophizing, and he seemed very much on a quest for certainty. If I were to try and have a conversation with him, I wouldn’t know where to begin. After all, my background is as someone very much brainwashed into a secular and scientific way of thinking, where I don’t expect much in the way of certainty, and I’m not much impressed by armchair metaphysics. As I said, too much work to be worthwhile — I mean, what the hell would it achieve?

Oh well, I’m off traveling again, and I’ll probably be quiet for the next three weeks…

bookmark_borderA catalog of gods

P.Z. Myers at Pharyngula points out Godchecker’s “Your Guide to the Gods,” a searchable database of over 2,850 gods. You can search by pantheon (African, Australian, Aztec, Caribbean, Celtic, Chinese, Egyptian, Finnish, Greek, Incan, Japanese, Mayan, Mesopotamian, Middle Eastern, Native American, Norse, Oceanic, Roman, Slavic and Baltic, South American, and Southeast Asian), look at the Deity of the Day (available via RSS feed), read feature articles, or purchase items from the God Shop. There are also collections of links to other resources on mythology.

As Myers observes, you can make the point that evangelical Christians are atheists with respect to all but one of the listed gods. (Actually, the database lists Jehovah, Yahweh, YHWH, God, and Jesus individually, as well as non-deities like Satan, Adam, Moses, Noah, and the pantheon of Christian saints.)

bookmark_borderModern religion

Secularists have long hoped that modernization would work against religion, or at least the more mindless varieties of religion. As we did better in fulfilling human needs, there would be less that religious belief would compensate for. In modern societies with multiple overlapping social roles and fragmented identities, religions as complete ways of life would seem less compelling. Scientific explanations would substitute for invocations of supernatural forces.

It isn’t happening, with the exception of Western Europe. People are certainly becoming religious in different ways — modernization is transforming religion — but in the main, not in a liberal, secular direction. In Islam and Christianity (and I supect other major traditions as well), there is a trend toward individualism and therapeutic religion. But this typically comes together with naive fundamentalism. The individual faith-experience and the feeling of being born again takes precedence. And this works against the intellectual, high-culture traditions sustained within religions as well as against secularization of belief. Modernization often replaces traditional religiosity, where religion is just an unquestioned part of social reality, with fundamentalisms that insist on making commitments of faith explicit. But this development does not favor intellectual elites and their institutions. Right-wing religious populisms attract large constituencies.

We are not necessarily moving toward a world where rationality has a more prominent role. Faith-based and ideological commitments very often seem to have the upper hand. I don’t know if this is so bad for individual nonbelievers — we’re used to life as a small minority. And interestingly, even fundamentalists these days invariably feel like a persecuted minority, as a small group of true believers afloat in a hostile overall culture that is at best indifferent to their deeply held moral convictions. To a certain extent, that perception is accurate — fundamentalisms cannot plausibly hope to control much more than a narrowly religious sphere of life these days. But still, this is a sort of cultural environment that is not good for institutions, such as science, that secularists have typically cared about.

bookmark_borderTalk in Oregon

Just in case anyone is interested and can make it: I’m going to be speaking in the Summer Institute of the Jefferson Center for Religion and Philosophy in Ashland, Oregon, on August 5. They have an good lineup of speakers, including Matt Young, who should also be of interest to Secular Outpost readers.

The Jefferson Center is a liberal religious group, so it should be interesting. I’ll have as many questions to ask them as I’m sure they’ll want to ask me. One question I’d like to explore is the matter of religion, as opposed to just the supernatural. Although I’ve written an awful lot on supernatural claims, most of religious life is about other things, only indirectly involving the faithfuls’ relationship to supernatural realities. It should be interesting to have some conversations on why liberal religious people still feel a strong need for some sort of attenuated supernatural conviction (“the transcendent” or whatever). In a scientific context, it comes across as being evasive, but then again, they also seem very much concerned to protect religion from “scientism,” “reductionism,” or whatever.

bookmark_borderWho is the Most Prominent Atheist?

Philosopher Doug Krueger once made the interesting observation that whenever theists want to boast about their alleged successes in debates with atheists, theists always describe their opponents as “best-known,” “foremost,” the “most famous,” or the “most prominent.” For example:

If I were to generalize a bit, it appears there is interest in answering the following questions:

  • For any purported atheist, is the individual recognized as an atheist by other atheists?
  • Who is the most prominent atheist philosopher (living or deceased)?
  • Who is the most prominent living atheist philosopher?
  • Who is the “best” atheist debater?
  • Who has the strongest arguments for atheism?
  • Which atheist has the best rebuttals to theistic arguments?
  • For any given atheist, are their arguments for atheism representative of what you consider to be the best arguments for atheism?

This got me thinking about an idea. Anyone who is a sports fan is familiar with various polls that rank teams and players in different sports, such as ESPN’s NFL Power Rankings, the National Football League’s Pro Bowl, the AP College Football Poll, the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, and so forth. You get the idea. It would be interesting (and potentially useful) if atheist philosophers, debaters, and activists were to do their own poll or ranking of fellow atheists, similar to the polls and rankings we see in the sports world. (This could be potentially useful to both sides, insofar as it might help address a situation where Christian debaters select a particular atheist as their debate opponent, claim that the atheist is a better spokesperson for atheism than he or she is, and then other atheists are disappointed in the selection of the atheist spokesperson.) Of course, this idea raises all sorts of logistical questions, such as what exactly would be voted on, who gets to vote, when would the vote occur (i.e., how often), how will the votes be counted, and so forth. But if this idea were perceived as useful, I’m sure that these issues could be figured out.

What do you think? Would the idea of “ranking” atheist philosophers, debaters, or activists be useful?