What is Christianity? An Interview With Bart Ehrman

This is a really good interview with Bart Ehrman, a scholar with degrees from three prominent biblical and theological colleges who specializes in textual criticism of the New Testament, the historical Jesus, and the development of early Christianity.

He points out a lot of interesting facts, such as evidence that Jesus’ teachings and behavior suggest he was a Jewish reformer with no intention of creating a new religion; that the spreading the faith to non-Jews (and ultimately the world) was an innovation of Paul that was strenuously opposed by Peter; and that early Christianity and Judaism may have been “henotheistic“, in that they did not rule out the existence of other gods but simply argued that only one of them should be worshiped ahead of the others.

Regardless of your religious persuasion or lack thereof (I am a secular humanist), the two hour interview is well worth checking out just from an academic point of view. (Ehrman is a former born again Christian who during his studies became agnostic, but he takes a fairly charitable view of Christians overall.)

Let me know  what you think and feel free to share your thoughts.

The End of Casual Christianity

As expected, the response to a recent Pew report finding a precipitous decline in religious believers in the United States has generally been doom and gloom among most Christians. But as an article in the Washington Post rightly points out, the issue of declining piety — and its subsequent impact on society and policies — is a lot more nuanced that meets the eye.

Most of the actual decline in believers from 2007 to 2014 was concentrated among Roman Catholics and the Protestant mainline, and among those most loosely tethered to religious faith. Evangelical Christians held pretty steady, which set up an odd chain of reactions. Secularists were pleased about the decline of Christianity. Some conservative Christians were pleased about the decline of theological liberalism. The latter is evidence of an old grudge.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Protestant mainline decisively won the battle for cultural preeminence — triumphing in public battles such as the Scopes Trial and leaving fundamentalists to retreat into a subculture. So the mainline’s comeuppance is met with uncharitable satisfaction in some conservative circles — call it William Jennings Bryan’s revenge. The language of “decline”, however, is imprecise. The mainline has not so much declined as faded into the broader culture. “Liberals have learned that it’s difficult for the church to survive”, says historian George Marsden, “if there’s nothing that makes the church distinct from culture”.

Indeed, with most liberal Christians being, in effect, deists — denying retrograde doctrines and theologies — it makes sense that the natural progression would be towards outright irreligiosity, agnosticism, or atheism. Continue reading

The Problem With a Terrifying and Loving God

One of the first things that caused my religious faith to waver was the paradoxical way in which the Christian God was conveyed (at least by my particular Catholic church): infinitely loving yet presiding over a cosmic system whereby sinners and nonbelievers suffer for eternity without pardon (a punishment that is literally unsurpassable in its harshness).

Now of course, there were always caveats, namely that God does not want anyone to end up in hell (despite first creating and still maintaining such a system), hence Jesus, the work of the church and its missionaries, etc.

Setting aside the ethical and theological scruples, I also took issue (and still do) with the way that Christians themselves use this contradictory nature as some sort of stick and carrot to cajole their opponents (be they nonbelievers, adherents of other religions, or even more liberal Christians).

Captain Cassidy over a Patheos captures this approach perfectly:

When a Christian says something like “You should convert because Jesus loved you so much he died for you, but if you don’t then you’ll suffer unspeakable torment forever and ever and ever”, I’m left wondering just what is being said here. Am I supposed to convert out of awe for this supposed act of love? Or am I supposed to convert out of sheer terror and a desire to avoid torment? Because I honestly can’t tell which tactic the Christian is going for. It doesn’t seem loving to torment people.

And the really bad news for Christian zealots is, you can’t really mix and match when it comes to love and terror. I’m not sure it’s even possible to love that which terrorizes us, or (to be more accurate) that which is used to terrorize us. If you want to go with the lovey-dovey stuff, then terror destroys it; if you go with terror, then it’s hard to squeak about lovey-dovey stuff after threatening someone with lurid torture and pain. That so many Christians seem perfectly content to do exactly this mincing dance seems downright grotesque to me. If they described a real person that way, as a man who would physically hurt me if I refused to do what he wanted but who loved me and wanted my love in return, then I’d tell them to stuff it and keep their abusive asshole of a buddy far away from me. The split-second that violence enters the equation, love leaves it–unless of course someone has internalized violence so effectively that it no longer disqualifies a being from slavish devotion.

When Ken Ham ominously threatens people with “God’s judgment” and says, regarding the possible destruction of Earth by a meteor strike, that “unbelievers should be afraid of Jesus Christ’s judgment instead”, it’s hard not to wonder if he’s saying that people should convert because of their terror of this “judgment”–in other words, out of fear of going to Hell. But which is it? Is his god loving, or is he a sociopathic monster? Which gear is he picking here?

Now obviously, many Christians reject both this tactic and its theological underpinnings. Many religious people are genuinely loving and either downplay or outright repudiate the terrifying nature of God.

But in the United States especially, many people prescribe to this notion and utilize it in their preaching, proselytizing, or apologetics. It represents a cynical and totalitarian mentality that seems less concerned about others’ salvation and more focused on manipulating people: to use my earlier analogy, if the carrot of God’s love does not work, than the stick of His fear just might.

Now that I’m out of Christianity and have been for a while, I can see these fearmongering, terroristic tactics for what they are: attempts to strong-arm compliance and force obedience. If you want to see what a Christian really thinks is persuasive, wait to see what that person’s big guns look like. Look for what follows the “but” in their proselytizing. If you let people do it, they’ll tell you exactly what’s really important to them. “He loves you, but if you don’t obey him then you’ll suffer mightily” is the message of way too many Christians.

Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent, as Isaac Asimov put it long ago. Threats are what bullies use when they can’t get their way any other way. When someone can’t win by reason or logic or facts, and that person lacks a moral compass and has no empathy or compassion for others, then such a person will use force to try to win by any means possible. If Christians actually had a good reason to fear the threats they make, they’d already have given us the goods.

Once you’ve identified the threat being made, then you can ask for evidence that it’s a threat you really need to fear. If Ken Ham really thinks that his god’s judgment would be scarier and worse for humanity than a meteor hitting the Earth, but can’t come up with anything solid and credible to explain why his threat is something anybody needs to fear, then I’m safe in dismissing what he blusters as the bombast of a bully angry that he can’t get his way any other way. And I call shenanigans on him claiming that Christians aren’t scared at all of catastrophes; I was a Christian myself for many years and can absolutely tell him that why yes, a great many Christians are downright terrified of the end of the world. He’s talking out of his ass, but what else is new? His followers will eat it up with a spoon and parrot it, many hoping that their own fears will be allayed if they do.

For me, this strain of Christianity says more about the psychology and personality of its adherents than about the religion as a whole (though insofar as Christian doctrine gives fuel to such a common approach, it definitely has its problems).

Just as I have met many friendly and compassionate people who prescribe to a more friendly and compassionate form of Christianity (which in some forms seems more Deistic or New Agey than anything), so too do less than kind people, often with an aggressive and domineering streak, just happen to apply their Christian faith in that way.

Quite a few non-believers and even many Christians have already abandoned threats and the very idea of Hell as incompatible with the idea of a loving god. But to those Christians who use their religion as a way of expressing aggression and dominance, those threats are their primary tools, and they’ve got all kinds of rationalizations already made up in their minds about why they can’t possibly stop threatening people. Phrases like “for their own good” figure prominently here.

The funny thing is that all we’d need is one single credible piece of evidence supporting their threats. Just one. That’s all. But they can’t do that. Instead, they are content to keep issuing threats. And if someone vulnerable happens to fall for the threats and converts on the basis of them, then these Christian bullies will feel 100% justified in continuing to use threats and bullying to get their way. But even if the threats don’t work, they’ll keep using them because threats are what they, personally, think are compelling–as I’ve mentioned before, these threats overshadow even the very best intentions for many Christians.

If the fear of God’s wrath and punishment is the strongest incentive you have, or think others should have, for believing in your religion, you need to reevaluate the basis and sincerity of your faith. Most of these individuals would never accept fear as a legitimate reason to trust or follow political leaders, or any human being. Does God’s divine nature and / or status as our alleged Creator make him immune to such reasonable considerations? Are we supposed to cower in fear of a loving, fatherly creator and use that terror — in some bizarre combination with love and awe — as a basis to believe in Him? It sounds like an abusive relationship more than anything. How can genuine love be compelled by threat of violence of the worst kind imaginable?

What are your thoughts?

A new exposé of Mother Teresa shows that she—and the Vatican—were even worse than we thought

Very disturbing, though it confirms what I’ve already read and seen from other sources.

Why Evolution Is True

First Christopher Hitchens took her down, then we learned that her faith wasn’t as strong as we thought, and now a new study from the Université de Montréal is poised to completely destroy what shreds are left of Mother Teresa’s reputation. She was the winner of the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize, was beatified and is well on her way to becoming a saint, and she’s universally admired. As Wikipedia notes:

[She was] named 18 times in the yearly Gallup’s most admired man and woman poll as one of the ten women around the world that Americans admired most. In 1999, a poll of Americans ranked her first in Gallup’s List of Most Widely Admired People of the 20th Century. In that survey, she out-polled all other volunteered answers by a wide margin, and was in first place in all major demographic categories except the very young.

The criticisms of…

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Growth of the Nonreligious: Many Say Trend is Bad for American Society

That’s the conclusion of a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, and it’s not terribly surprising given the widespread antipathy towards non believers (especially self-declared atheists). Also unsurprising is the fact that White Evangelical Protestants had the least favorable views (78%), followed by Black Protestants (64%). Continue reading

The Problem of Hell

One of the most disturbing aspects of Christianity (as well as Islam) is the existence of Hell. The idea that God would send – or otherwise allow – people to suffer eternal torture for things like masturbation, adultery, or not knowing he exists is both absurd and despicable.

Think of what it’s like to burn your hand on a stove, and imagine that pain consuming your entire body forever without any chance to appeal or escape. How could any omni-benevolent, unimaginably intelligent being abide by such a system, let alone create it in the first place? Would you let your children or loved ones suffer that sort of fate over ultimately trivial infractions?

Alarmingly, even otherwise intelligent and well-adjusted people buy into this unethical and illogical belief. Prominent theologian and apologist William Lane Craig is perhaps one of the better known examples of someone trying to rationalize the compatibility of a loving God with the ultimate form of suffering imaginable.

In chapter 10 of his 2010 book, On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision, he shares his frightening view of Hell, in which he defends it as a literal place of torment that is acceptably and logically a part of God’s design. As much as I’d like to take him to task on this nonsense, someone else has already had the pleasure of doing so, and since his arguments are both good and reflective of my own, I’ll share them.

The nameless writer of the website Evangelical Realism has been countering every part of Craig’s odious book, and the one devoted to chapter 10 is humorously titled “The Hell with Christianity.” Though his style can be abrasive and at times profane, he makes good points once you look past that (I don’t personally don’t mind but I’m giving fair warning to those that do).

He starts by addressing the underlying inconsistency of the existence of hell that I discussed earlier, noting that even Craig himself seems to try to weasel out of it (note that his statements are italicized and quoted).

Craig has a real problem here and that is that he himself cannot stomach what the Bible really says about Hell. Read Matthew 25. Read Jesus’ description of God’s attitude towards the unsaved. It’s not, “Oh dear, you’re going to Hell, if only there were something I could do to save you.” God’s attitude can be summed up by two words: “Fuck you.” You pissed Me off, and I am throwing your ass in Hell, and you can stay there. No apologies, no regrets. The God of the Bible absolutely does throw people in Hell, and doesn’t ask for Craig’s approval or consent. Call that Inconsistency #3: Craig has to reinvent damnation before he can defend it.

“Our eternal destiny thus lies in our own hands. It’s a matter of our free choice where we shall spend eternity. Those who are lost, therefore, are self-condemned; they separate themselves from God despite God’s will and every effort to save them, and God grieves over their loss.”

Let’s count the inconsistencies in these three brief sentences. Inconsistency [#1]: a misinformed choice is not really free. God does not show up in real life, which limits us to the kind of choices where you either gullibly embrace whatever men tell you about God (and let’s face it, that could be almost anything) or else you stick to the facts, which ends up making you an atheist. If God is real and is hiding from us, His absence is denying us the opportunity to know what our real choices are, and thereby denying us the opportunity to make a truly free choice.

Exactly, how do we know what the real God is like? Jews, Muslims, and many others are just as convinced that they know the true God as any Christian. How are we to know who’s right, given that none of them can offer any more evidence than the other?

Furthermore, many Christians themselves can’t even agree on what God is like or what he wants from us: the religion is split into hundreds, even thousands, of different sects depending on how you count. There are wildly different interpretations of the Bible, the nature of Christ, the nature of God, and so on. Should I follow the Catholics? The Lutherans? The growing number of unaffiliated people who reject organized Christianity completely?

Inconsistency [#2]: separation. We have not separated ourselves from God. We’re here; God isn’t. It wasn’t skeptics who ascended into Heaven and left Jesus all alone here on the earth. We have no control over God’s willingness and ability to show up in real life. The gap created by His absence is not one we can bridge (not even by credulity and superstition). If God wants to eliminate the separation, it’s up to Him to show up.

Same problem as before: people will claim to have seen God or felt his presence, and they’ll cite that as proof. But again, every religion has people who’ve claimed to seen or experience their version of the divine. Which do we believe? Plus, there are plenty of people who hear voices or think they’re prophets, and they’re usually written off as crazy (including by religious people): how do we separate mental illness from the real deal? We can’t just take anyone’s word on it.

Inconsistency [#3]: every effort to save us? Get real. The most fundamental, trivial, and obvious “effort” would be to show up in real life, tell us that He loves us, and offer us a relationship with Himself. Notice I say “in real life” and “tell us,” not “show up in an ancient legend” and “tell a few guys who died 2,000 years ago.” Does He want to save us, or did He stop caring once the apostles were gone? Show me a tangible effort happening in the real world (as opposed to happening in the superstitious worldview of a self-convincing Christian), and then we’ll talk.

I always think of the story of the Apostle Thomas, who was the only one to doubt that Christ had resurrected. God subsequently showed him proof, and Jesus appeared before him in the flesh, bearing the wounds of his crucifixion. He convinced and (subsequently saved) Thomas yet hasn’t done so for the billions of nonbelievers that have come and gone since. I’d be more than happy to believe in God if I had proof, as would most people. So why did Thomas alone get that benefit?

Inconsistency [#4] God grieves? Not in the Bible. It makes believers sad because it’s so obviously inconsistent with the idea of God as a genuinely loving Father who really cares whether or not the vast majority of His children suffer for all eternity. But time and again, in the parables of Jesus, the “guilty” are dispatched to their eternal judgment with nary a particle of remorse or regret on the Lord’s part.

Indeed, as soft and moralistic an image as Jesus has, we should remember that it is with his arrival that the concept of Hell is introduced (the proceeding Jewish part of the Bible barely touches on the afterlife, let alone hell). He may have preached many nice things, but he also made it a point that transgression would be punished swiftly.

Sure, some lines in the Bible suggest that this saddens both the son and the father. But many others don’t hint at any pity. If you’re a loving parent, would you not feel some remorse at seeing your child get burned alive for eternity because they didn’t follow some doctrine or another?

The writer in Evangelical Realism also addresses another major problem with hell: the obvious unfairness and cruelty of making people suffer infinite punishment for passing transgressions. No legitimate justice system on this Earth will lock you up for the rest of your life (much less torture you) if you break minor laws without remorse. The only regimes that do that are totalitarian ones (think of how Stalin or Hitler executed people for not adhering to their respective state ideologies – even that was more merciful than what God would have in mind if you don’t believe in him).

“We could agree that every individual sin that a person commits deserves only a finite punishment. But it doesn’t follow from this that all of a person’s sins taken together as a whole deserve only a finite punishment. If a person commits an infinite number of sins, then the sum total of all such sins deserves infinite punishment.

Now, of course, nobody commits an infinite number of sins in the earthly life. But what about in the afterlife? Insofar as the inhabitants of hell continue to hate God and reject Him, they continue to sin and so accrue to themselves more guilt and more punishment. In a real sense, then, hell is self-perpetuating. In such a case, every sin has a finite punishment, but because sinning goes on forever, so does the punishment.”

Assuming God is merciless, of course. Otherwise, since He’s the ultimate arbiter of how much punishment each sin deserves, He could, for example, arrange for the punishment earned to be slightly less than the punishment received, and thus allow His beloved children to eventually escape from the torments of Hell. Or He could simply pardon them—it’s not like He’s going to be impeached for showing too much mercy as Judge. Or, to take it in a different direction, He could simply make them unconscious, or even non-existent. They might not be saved, but at least they’re not being tortured for all eternity, or racking up more punishment. Or again, He could not send them to Hell in the first place. The Bible does say that the wages of sin is death, and the people at the Last Judgment are pretty much all dead, so they’ve paid the penalty already.

Indeed, hell is not only unethical but illogical. God could have made the world however he wanted. Why, despite all his boundless love, would he create something like Hell? Of all the different and proportionate forms of justice out there, which even we petty and imperfect beings could devise, why did God go for something so horrific and unjust? What “mysterious plan” could justify something like this?

Ain’t No Homos Going to Heaven

The following video, which has recently gone viral, is greatly disturbing: a little boy, being clearly coached, is singing a hateful litany about homosexuals – to rancorous approval and encouragement by his adult audience.

The Huffington Post reports:

The congregation in the church, which has been identified as the Apostolic Truth Tabernacle Church in Greensburg, Ind., gives a standing ovation after the child sings, “I know the Bible’s right, somebody’s wrong…ain’t no homos gonna make it to heaven.”

While this appears to be a relative small community, it’s probably not the only one that promotes this sort of hatred. Even if it’s not as explicit as song-singing, plenty of churches teach young people that homosexuals – among others – are evil enough to deserve eternal torture by their loving God. So many young minds warped into being ignorant and hateful. I almost literally weep for this child.

Thankfully, this insidious nonsense (to put it lightly) is being given the attention it deserves:

A number of high profile lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) bloggers and allies have re-posted the video, including Towleroad and Joe. My. God. All have noted that the child was undoubtedly coached by adults for his performance.

“Interview with a Vampire” author Anne Rice also posted the video to her Facebook page, noting, “In this country, Christians can teach toddlers to hate and to persecute, and we, through the automatic tax exemption for churches, foot the bill.”

It remains to be seen where this pushback will lead. Whether they apologize or not – and I’m not holding my breath on that – the fact this is just a small sample of the hate-driven indoctrination that goes on throughout this country makes me lose sleep at night.

Think of how many kids are being unwittingly manipulated, like this boy, into being bigots, when they otherwise wouldn’t be? Think of how many prejudiced adults would’ve turned out okay if they hadn’t been born and raised in this sort of ignorant environment?

My only source of solace is that each coming generation seems to be more tolerant than the previous, and that many of these children do in fact break free of this brainwashing and abuse, thanks in large part to the better organized efforts of social justice advocates – and their expert use of the internet, which has become a major force in undermining this sort of madness.

It’s a difficult battle, but the social and ideological trends are on our side. We just need to keep pushing.

I’ll end this with a song that Jerry Coyne, one of my favorite bloggers, highlighted for its astute observation. Written in 1949 for the Broadway musical South Pacific, it’s called “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

Poisoning the minds of children is clearly nothing new. But thankfully, neither are efforts to counteract it.

How Americans View Christianity’s Affect on Society

Close to 80% of Americans identify as Christians of some form or another, and most of them are pretty devout. Given that Christianity is touted for its moral and ethical teachings, it should be expected that a society that is this overwhelmingly religious – more so than any other developed country – should see a positive impact in overall societal wellbeing. Wouldn’t Christians themselves no doubt expect this?

The survey above examined this very question. Produced by Grey Matter Research and Consulting, a private research organization, the report is called “What Difference Does Christianity Make? How People Feel the Christian Faith Really Impacts (or Doesn’t Impact) America.” The data is drawn from a demographically representative sample of 1,000US adults* who were asked how they feel the Christian faith impacts 16 different areas. The sample included Christians of different denominations, people of other faiths, and the nonreligious. Again, since most Americans, and thus most respondents, describe themselves as Christian, the results more or less show how our Christian society views the impact of its own teachings.

Needless to say, the answers are very interesting, considering that many Christians viewed their own faith as having little or no impact in many areas. From the report:

“Over half of all Americans (54%) believe the Christian faith really does not impact how people treat the environment. Almost half believe the faith has no impact on ethics in the business world (44%), participation in politics and voting (44%), the amount of substance abuse in society (43%), or differences of opinion being discussed in a civil manner (42%). Christianity is considered to lack any real impact in eight other areas by around one out of three Americans”

Even more fascinating is the complex view that different believers – as well as nonbelievers – have towards one another. The popular perception is that most Christians find their teachings to be effective and superior, while secular folks would strongly beg to differ. But a break down of the data muddles this black-and-white concept of religious versus nonreligious.

Consider that when asked about their religion’s affect on helping the less fortunate, Christians answered overwhelmingly (79%) that Christianity has a positive impact, which isn’t too surprising – Christians generally pride themselves on the charitable nature of their belief system.

However, atheist and agnostics were pretty much in agreement with them: 67% stated Christianity had a positive impact in this area. In fact, secular respondents gave Christianity a far more positive score on this question than did members of other religions  – by contrast, only 49% of non-Christian religious believers believed Christianity had a positive impact on helping the less fortunate.

But it’d interesting to note that for the most part, those identifying as “atheist/agnostic” had similar answers to people of “other (non-Christian) religions,” which may be because that both groups feel marginalized or ostracized by an overwhelmingly Christian society. Maybe there is some level for kinship too, since a lot of minorities tend to find common cause with each other. I’d be curious to know how this dynamic works out in other developed countries, in which non-Christians are a much larger force, while devout believers – especially conservative ones – are a relative minority.

Another interesting point to consider are the differences that exist within Christianity, namely between Protestants – consisting mostly of conservative Evangelicals and a smaller number of  liberal Mainline groups – and Roman Catholics, who are also divided politically. According to the data, while Protestants generally see Christianity as having a positive impact on everything, Catholics are more nuanced: if you look at the breakdown of the report, 41% of Catholics view Christianity as having a negative impact on sexuality, compared to only 27% of Protestants. This also puts a lot of Catholics at odds with their own Church.

In conclusion, it is clear that Christianity’s influence in society is more complex than most people think. It’s perceived as something of a mixed bag even by its own believers, having a positive effect only in certain social areas, and an outright negative effect on others (namely sexuality, tolerance, and our global image). More importantly for secularists, these results give lie to the frequent and simplistic claim that nonreligious people (especially self-identified atheists) viscerally reject and despise religion at every turn. While that may certainly be true of some of us (and is no different than how some Christians treat nonbelievers), it’s apparent that many atheists, along with non-Christians, give credit to Christianity in certain areas, especially in poverty alleviation (which owes itself more to the fact that Christian churches have an organized and well-established structure, as well as a broader belief base, through which to give aid). Furthermore, religious and nonreligious people alike didn’t differ in their answers all that much, even agreeing that religion had no impact one way or the other in many areas.

So as with most social and ideological phenomenon, there is far more complexity and nuance than meets the eye.

*In every post I’ve made in which poll data is referenced, someone inevitably brings up the point that only a small number of people are questioned, and thus the results should not be seen as representative of the population as a whole. However, that is why the sample is designed to represent society’s demographics as closely as possible. Given that we cannot ask these questions on the census, which is the only poll of its kind to include everyone in the country, studies like these are the closest we have to figuring out what the country believes. I’m not saying it’s 100% definitive, but it shouldn’t be reflexively dismissed either, unless you’re willing to disbelieve any and all statistical data (which a lot of people do anyway, so in that case disregard this post).

Conservative Christianity and the Environment

Generally speaking, the political right is far less amiable to environmentalism than the left. Of course there are exceptions, and there wasn’t always a political divide when it came to environmental issues. But nowadays, American conservatives are more hostile than ever towards environmental causes: they are more likely to deny climate change, support the curtailment or outright abolishment of the EPA (which was established by the Nixon administration), and oppose policies related to environmental regulations in general.

Again, these are generalizations of a very broad ideology, and there are certainly nuances in each of these debates – for example, some conservatives support environmental causes in principle, but disagree with the way they’re addressed. They may prefer free-market solutions rather than statist ones. We can argue about the efficacy of their proposed alternatives, but at least we’d have common cause.

Unfortunately, many conservatives do oppose ecological considerations as a matter of principle, and they’re especially likely to do so when their conservative politics is intertwined with fundamentalist faith: as most polls have shown, the Christian Right is far less concerned with the environment than their secular co-conservatives, let alone the rest of the population.

No one embodies this better than current (as if this writing) GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who embodies the ascendant social conservatism of his party. While I try to keep my blog postings timeless, and thereby avoid narrowly topical events, I feel that the following example is and will remain relevant for some time.

Columnist James Wood of the New Yorker analyzes Santorum’s views on the environment and in the process makes a larger case about the impact of Christianity (namely the fundamentalist kind) on humanity’s attitude about our ecological role.

If Rick Santorum is so staunch a Catholic, why does he often sound such a Protestant, not to say puritanical, note? His remarks about how President Obama’s world view is just “some phony theology” have received a lot of attention but too little examination. It turned out that Santorum was talking, in general terms, about “radical environmentalists,” and using environmentalism as a synecdoche for everything he abominates in secular progressive politics. “This idea that man is here to serve the earth as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the earth” is, he maintained on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” “a phony ideal. I don’t believe that’s what we’re here to do. That man is here to use the resources and use them wisely, to care for the earth, to be a steward of the earth. But we’re not here to serve the earth. The earth is not the objective. Man is the objective, and I think a lot of radical environmentalists have it upside-down.” That kind of ideology, he complained, “elevates the earth above man.

Put aside theology for a moment. Just intellectually, there are many peculiarities here. According to Santorum, environmentalists and leftists believe in serving the earth, while proper Christians “should have dominion over it, and should be good stewards of it.” The distinction Santorum is working here is between a very narrow definition of service as idol-worship (in which the earth becomes our fetish), and stewardship as responsible husbandry. He means, in effect: “Secularists have made a false idol of the earth, whereas God is the only true object of worship.” (And note that he can make this point only by taking the cherished Christian term “service” and casting secular dirt on it.)

I’m not quite sure why Santorum believes that service to the Earth is mutually exclusive to service to mankind. This is a false dichotomy: we have a duty to both humankind and the planet in which resides. After all, we cannot thrive on a planet where ecosystems are degraded, temperatures are rising, and resources are being depleted.

His claim about environmentalists putting the concerns Earth above humanity is also a straw man. Again, few environmentalists believe in sacrificing our race for the good of the planet. True, many of them do advocate that we make some sacrifices: investing more in government efforts to reign down on pollution for example, or changing our lifestyle habits. But most causes necessarily ask something of us, and I don’t think we’re being self-destructive in trying to make Earth more livable for us and the ecosystems we depend on.

Of course, some of you will point out that Santorum specifically highlighted “radical environmentalists,” not the movement as a whole. But he strongly alluded to the fact that the secular progressive left as a whole, including Obama, fall under the description. The president has hardly been radical in his environmental policies, nor are mainstream leftists. Clearly, Santorum has a very low standard for what he defines as radical.

Also note that, as usual, different Christians will derive dissimilar if not outright contradictory meanings from the same Biblical source. I’ve met my share of Christians who are staunch environmentalists, and who can point to all sorts of Biblical lines that they’ve interpreted to be pro-environment. Even those whose actions are not explicitly grounded in religious doctrine nonetheless see no conflict between “radical” environmentalism and their faith.

Semantics is a big part of this. As Woods points out, Santorum is using the term “service” in his own way, and no doubt his idea of being “good stewards” of the Earth is far different from that of many of his coreligionists, who can and do take the same phrase to mean exactly the opposite: that we should indeed care for this God-given planet, rather than despoil it.

But the views of Santorum and his fellow religious conservatives is not merely the result of political ideological or contrary interpretation. It stems from the very nature of religion as a whole, and Christianity in particular, and the subsequent effect on the human psyche.

Christianity, with its emphasis on the afterlife, has always had a tendency to derogate earthly living as a kind of spectral vanity. And the early Christians, who like St. Paul were convinced that Jesus’s return, and thus the end of the known world, was imminent, had particular reason to treat life as a ghostly antechamber to the joys of eternity. There is a sharp difference between the other-worldly asceticism of Christianity and the life-filled practicality of Biblical Judaism, which has a vague or non-existent notion of the afterlife. It was this asceticism, among other irritants, that caused Nietzsche to accuse Christianity of turning life upside-down—of privileging sickness over health, weakness over strength, the life to come over the life here. “Christianity was, from the beginning, essentially and fundamentally, nausea and disgust with life, merely concealed behind, masked by, dressed up as, faith in ‘another’ or ‘better’ life,” he wrote in “The Birth of Tragedy.” As the secularist might see it, Santorum is the one who has got things upside-down.

….It is there in the works of John Hooper (c. 1500-1555), considered the father of English Puritanism, when he writes that we must “see, know and understand the vanities of this world, the shortness and misery of this life, and the treasures of the life to come.” It is there in John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” and omni-present in Jonathan Edwards’s work, notably in “The Christian Pilgrim,” when he writes that the enjoyment of God is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied:

“To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodation here. Fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, or children, or the company of earthly friends are but shadows; but God is the substance.”

Indeed, this has long been one of my biggest qualms with Christianity, which is its tendency to breed a sort of underlying nihilism among its adherents. Salvation is not predicated on taking care of this material Earth – which is essentially nothing more than testing ground for our souls – or on improving the human condition. Belief and acceptance of Christ trumps all other considerations.

Of course, many Christians do care about this planet and its inhabitants, and do make an effort to help both. But the point is that they don’thave to, and many of their fellow believers seem fatally unconcerned about such “worldly” issues. After all, the fate of their eternal souls is far more consequential than that of this finite, ultimately unimportant world.

Why else would the US, the most religious of the world’s developed nations, also be the most skeptical of climate change, the most tolerant of social inequity, and the most dysfunctional as far as high rates of crime, poverty, teen pregnancy, and the like. Certainly, many other factors are responsible. But the fact that religious piety, for all its purported merits, has not led to greater overall progress on these fronts highlights that negative consequences of being too steeped in transcendent ideologies.

Santorum may claim, as he did in 2008, that “mainline Protestantism in this country … is gone from the world of Christianity, as I see it,” but, with his attacks on “Satan” and “sensuality,” and his apocalyptic or even post-millennial Christianity, he often sounds like an eighteenth-century American Puritan.

Hence a particular impatience with the values of environmental conservation. For the apocalyptic Christian, sights set firmly on heavenly life, the earth might indeed be a finite and transitory thing, what William Blake wonderfully called a “mundane egg.” Man is what needs to be protected, because each of us is a soul, whose eternal fate is up for grabs.

So when Santorum says that we must be good stewards of the earth, there is religious zealotry behind the sweet words. He is proposing, in effect, that the earth is dispensable but that our souls are not; that we will all outlive the earth, whether in heaven or hell. The point is not that he is elevating man above the earth; it is that he is separating man and earth. If President Obama really does elevate earth over man (accepting Santorum’s absurd premise for a moment), then at least he believes in keeping man and earth together. Santorum’s brand of elevation involves severing man from man’s earthly existence, which is why it is coherent only within a theological eschatology (a theology of the last days). And he may well believe that man cannot actually destroy the earth through such violence as global warming, for the perfectly orthodox theological reason that the earth will come to an end (or be renewed) only when Christ comes again to judge the living and the dead. In other words, global warming can’t exist because it is not in God’s providential plan: the Lord will decide when the earth expires. This is Santorum’s “theology,” phony or otherwise.

Woods identifies the crux of the problem that I was alluding to: that religions are generally more concerned with the world thereafter, than with the here and now. Santorum’s view is hardly a unique one, which is precisely why our society has higher rates of climate change denial, among other things.

This sort of worldview is obviously dangerous, for at best, it leads us to be indifferent to the existential plight of this planet, and at worst, abets self-destructive behavior on both an individual and societal level. The world will end anyway, and that’ll be God’s call. So why worry?

In practice, many Christians, even those who prescribe to this worldview, don’t actually act in this way (thankfully). But the fact that such a belief system exists at all is a matter of great concern, as it seeks to gamble away the fate of our one and only existence on the basis of an unevidenced divine master plan.


Dominionism

Dominionism is a little-known Christian movement that is so complex and enigmatic that its very existence is debated. Though it’s been discussed in academic circles for a few decades, the ideology garnered considerably more attention this past fall, when several GOP presidential candidates were seen to have ties with various “Dominionist” organizations.

Around that time, NPR did an interview with the leader of one such group, the New Apostolic Reformation. The link above will take you to the full radio discussion, and includes a transcript that covers most of it. This is a basic summary of the organization and its head.

A new charismatic Christian movement that seeks to take dominion over politics, business and culture in preparation for the end times and Jesus’ return is becoming more of a presence in American politics. The leaders are considered apostles and prophets, gifted by God for this role. Several apostles affiliated with the movement helped organize or spoke at Rick Perry’s August prayer rally, The Response.

The international “apostolic and prophetic” movement has been dubbed the New Apostolic Reformation by C. Peter Wagner, who has become one of its leaders. He describes himself as the first person who noticed the movement, gave a name to it and started writing books about it. He was, until recently retiring, the president of Global Harvest Ministries. For 30 years, he was a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary School of World Missions.

As to be expected from that introduction, these folks are a bit loopy. Consider some of the highlights of the interview:

On the tsunami and nuclear meltdown in Japan being connected to the emperor of Japan having sex with the sun goddess
“That happened many, many years ago, and that created a spiritual atmosphere over Japan which was an atmosphere ruled by the powers of darkness. The sun goddess is not a very nice lady. The sun goddess is a power of darkness, which is headed up by the kingdom of Satan. And so the sun goddess wants natural disasters to come to Japan. Sometimes the hand of God, which is more powerful, will prevent them. And when he decides to prevent them and when he doesn’t is far beyond anything that we can predict.”

“But in this case, God could have prevented that tsunami and the destruction, but he didn’t. He just took his hand off and allowed these natural forces to work. And one of the background pieces of information is Japan is under control of the sun goddess.”

 On demons
As we talk, in Oklahoma City there is an annual meeting of a professional society called the Apostolic — called the International Society of Deliverance Ministers, which my wife and I founded many years ago. … This is a society of a large number, a couple hundred, of Christian ministers who are in the ministry of deliverance. Their seven-day-a-week occupation is casting demons out of people. And they have professional expertise in this and they happen to meeting — to be meeting right now. My wife is one of them. She’s written a whole book called How to Cast Out Demons. And I don’t do that much. Once in a while when I get in a corner, I might. But that’s — that’s been her ministry. And so I’ve been very, very close to that for years. We’ve been married for 60 years.”
 
On people in American politics being possessed by demons
“We don’t like to use the word possessed because that means they don’t have any power of their own. We like to use the word afflicted or, technical term, demonized. But there are people who — yes, who are — who are directly affected by demons, not only in politics, but also in the arts, in the media and religion in the Christian church.”
 
On demon identification
“Sometimes they know. Sometimes the demon has identified itself to the person. Sometimes you can tell by manifestations of superhuman, unhuman behavior. Sometimes you can tell by skilled deliverance ministers. My wife has a five-page questionnaire that she has people fill out before she ministers to them. So she asks the kind of questions that a medical doctor would ask to find out, to diagnose an illness. So she actually does diagnostic work on people to discover not only if they have demons, but what those demons might be.”
A disproportionate about of his attention seems to be on demons, whose exact nature is disturbingly vague. I’m quite certain the criteria for being identified as “demonic” or “demon-possessed” are quite flexible, making for a convenient way to identify cultural and ideological competitors as being the agents of ultimate evil. Case in point:

On spiritual mapping to cast demons out of cities

“When you talk about demons over cities, we’re talking about what — sometimes what we refer to as territorial spirits, and they’re more high-ranking spirits in the hierarchy of darkness and they’re more powerful and they require different approaches, and it’s not as easy as commanding them to leave in the name of Jesus. So sometimes there has to be repentance, sometimes there has to be — there has been bloodshed in that city that needs to be repented of, there has been idolatry in the city that has ruined the land. There’s been immorality that needs to be repented of, and there are several social things that people really need to acknowledge that they’re bad and repent of them and ask forgiveness. … There are certain individuals in our whole movement that have special gifts for doing that, and they’re helping lead the way in weakening the power of the spirits. We don’t believe we can kill demons and sometimes we don’t believe we can completely get ’em out, get ’em away from a city, but we can reduce their power. We can bind them, and then we can move strongly with the kingdom of God into the city.” 

Perhaps the only thing more disquieting than this medieval superstition is the authoritarian structure of the organization, which is actually quite characteristic of most religious institutions.
On what it means to be an apostle
“In terms of the role of the apostle, one of the biggest changes from traditional churches to the New Apostolic Reformation is the amount of spiritual authority delegated by the Holy Spirit to individuals. And the two key words are authority and individuals — and individuals as contrasted to groups. So now, apostles have been raised up by God who have a tremendous authority in the churches of the New Apostolic Reformation.”
 
On the role of the prophet
“God has chosen certain people from the church to have the gift of prophecy. And it says in the Old Testament in the Book of Amos that God does nothing unless he first reveals his secrets to his servants the prophets. So that’s a very key role. It hasn’t been recognized by the church very much up until the New Apostolic Reformation, but we recognize the role of prophet.” 

Notice the lack of qualifiers for what constitutes either an apostle or a prophet. As in most religions, anyone can claim to be chosen by the divine, and can thus attribute their own whims as those of a higher power. This is a dangerous recipe for abuse and manipulation – when you can claim legitimacy from an invisible and untestable source, anyone can take advantage. Authority should always justify itself and be accountable in some way.

So how does this mentality bode for the group’s view on government?

On what he means when he describes the NAR’s mission as taking dominion overbusiness, government, media, arts and entertainment, education, family and religion
“In terms of taking dominion, we don’t — we wouldn’t want to — we use the word dominion, but we wouldn’t want to say that we have dominion as if we’re the owners or we’re the rulers of, let’s say, the arts and entertainment mountain. What we strive to do and our goal is to have people in the arts and entertainment mountain who are committed to the kingdom of God, so therefore, we use the adjective there — kingdom-minded believers — and our goal is to try to have as many kingdom-minded believers in positions of influence in the arts and entertainment mountain as possible. And the reason for that is, to help bring the blessings of heaven to all those in the arts and entertainment mountain.”
 
On dominionism and acquiring leadership positions in government
“We believe in working with any — with whatever political system there is. In America, it’s democracy and working with the administrative, judicial and legislative branches of the government, the way they are, but to have as many kingdom-minded people in influence in each one of these branches of government as possible so that the blessings of the kingdom will come.”

There isn’t much that’s out-of-step with the mainstream Christian Right. Despite their radical views on other matters, the NAR seems to be typical of most evangelical groups (even the demonology might not be that far off). In fact, if you read or listen to the rest of the interview, Wagner discusses topics homosexuality, Islam, and the coming of Jesus in a relatively tame way. So what’s the big deal about Dominionism?

Well, the NAR represents just one element of the broad Dominionist movement, and its overall goals are for less savory. A group called Tal to Action provides a much more in-depth account about what this unusual Christian movement is about. Rachel TabachnickBruce WilsonFrederick Clarkson.

Dominionism is a broad political impulse within the Christian Right in the United States. It comes in a variety of forms that author Fred Clarkson and I call soft and hard. Fred and I probably coined the term “Dominionism” back in the 1990s, but in any case we certainly were the primary researchers who organized its use among journalists and scholars.

Clarkson noted three characteristics that bridge both the hard and the soft kind of Dominionism.

  • Dominionists celebrate Christian nationalism, in that they believe the United States once was, and should again be, a Christian nation. In this way, they deny the Enlightenment roots of American democracy.
  • Dominionists promote religious supremacy, insofar as they generally do not respect the equality of other religions, or even other versions of Christianity.
  • Dominionists endorse theocratic visions, believing that the Ten Commandments, or “biblical law,” should be the foundation of American law, and that the U.S. Constitution should be seen as a vehicle for implementing Biblical principles.

At the apex of hard Dominionism is the religious dogma of Dominion Theology, with two major branches: Christian Reconstructionism and Kingdom Now theology. It is the latter’s influence on the theopolitical movement called the New Apostolic Reformation that has been linked in published reports to [former] Republican presidential nominees Perry, Bachmann or Palin. All three of these right-wing political debutantes have flirted with Christian Right Dominionism, but how far they have danced toward the influence of hard-right Dominion Theology is in dispute. It would be nice if some “mainstream” journalists actually researched the question.

“While differing from Reconstructionism in many ways, Kingdom Now shares the belief that Christians have a mandate to take dominion over every area of life,” explains religion scholar Bruce Barron. And it is just this tendency that has spread through evangelical Protestantism, resulting in the emergence of “various brands of `dominionist’ thinkers in contemporary American evangelicalism,” according to Barron.

The most militant Dominion Theologists would silence dissenters and execute adulterers, homosexuals and recalcitrant children. No…seriously. OK, they would only be executed for repeated offenses, explain some defenders of Christian Reconstructionism. Even most Christian Right activists view the more militant Dominion Theologists as having really creepy ideas.

It sounds like pretty scary stuff, but because there’s a lot of overlap between Dominionism and the broader Christian Right, it’s hard to say how many Christians actually believe in any of this, let alone actively participate in such groups. It could very well be a minority small enough to merit little attention or concern. But the fact that some presidential hopefuls may have been influenced by this kind of thinking is pretty disturbing, especially since it goes beyond mere attaining power within our democratic system.

Advocates of Dominion Theology go beyond the democracy eroding theocracy of Dominionism into a totalitarian form of religious power called a “theonomy,” in which pluralistic democracy and religious tolerance are seen as a problem to be solved by godly men carrying out God’s will. Karen Armstrong calls Christian Reconstructionism “totalitarian” because it leaves “no room for any other view or policy, no democratic tolerance for rival parties, no individual freedom.” Matthew N. Lyons and I call Christian Reconstructionism a “new form of clerical fascist politics,” in our book Right-Wing Populism in America, because we see it echoing the religiously based clerical fascist movements that existed during World War II in countries including Romania and Hungary. 

According to Fred Clarkson:

Reconstructionists believe that there are three main areas of governance: family government, church government, and civil government. Under God’s covenant, the nuclear family is the basic unit. The husband is the head of the family, and wife and children are “in submission” to him. In turn, the husband “submits” to Jesus and to God’s laws as detailed in the Old Testament. The church has its own ecclesiastical structure and governance. Civil government exists to implement God’s laws. All three institutions are under Biblical Law, the implementation of which is called “theonomy.”

Christian Reconstructionists believe that as more Christians adopt Dominion Theology, they will eventually convert the majority of Americans. Then the country will realize that the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights are merely codicils to Old Testament biblical law. Because they believe this is God’s will, they scoff at criticism that what they plan is a revolutionary overthrow of the existing system of government. Over the past 20 years the leading proponents of Reconstructionism have included founder Rousas John (R.J.) Rushdoony, Gary North, Greg Bahnsen, David Chilton, Gary DeMar, and Andrew Sandlin. Kingdom Now theology emerged from the Latter Rain Pentacostal movement and the concept of Spiritual Warfare against the literal demonic forces of Satan. It has been promoted by founder Earl Paulk as well as C. Peter Wagner, founder of the New Apostolic Reformation movement.

For many, President Obama and the Democratic Party are among these “demonic forces.” This has real world consequences.

It certainly does – almost any ideology that is driven by absolute and unempirical dogma will cause great harm to society. Zealotry that isn’t constrained by real-world consequences or rationality can wreak all sorts of havoc. In this case, Dominionists aren’t satisfied with simply electing pious people into office and passing laws based upon Christian values. They want to completely supplant secular civil society with a despotic and patriarchal brand of theocracy, one which will extend into all areas of society, and which should never be questioned or resisted.

Religion scholar Bruce Barron explains that “unlike the Christian Right, Reconstructionism is not simply or primarily a political movement; it is first and foremost an educational movement fearlessly proclaiming an ideology of total world transformation.” According to sociologist Sara Diamond, Christian Reconstructionism spread the “concept that Christians are Biblically mandated to `occupy’ all secular institutions” to the extent that it became “the central unifying ideology for the Christian Right.”

I can imagine that many non-Dominionists would sympathize with these views as well. After all, anyone with a belief system that claims moral preeminence would prefer that it apply to everyone. Nothing promotes certainty and self-righteousness more than believing that the most powerful being imaginable is backing you up.

Even so, are any of these objectives resonating with the quarter or so of Americans who identify as evangelical right-wing Christians?

It is difficult to assess the influence of Reconstructionist thought with any accuracy. Because it is so genuinely radical, most leaders of the Religious Right are careful to distance themselves from it. At the same time, it clearly holds some appeal for many of them. One undoubtedly spoke for others when he confessed, `Though we hide their books under the bed, we read them just the same.’

Martin reveals that “several key leaders have acknowledged an intellectual debt to the theonomists.” The late Christian Right leaders Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy “endorsed Reconstructionist books” for example. Before he died in 2001, the founder of Christian Reconstuctionism, R. J. Rushdoony, appeared several times on Christian Right televangelist programs such as Pat Robertson’s 700 Club and the program hosted by D. James Kennedy.

“Pat Robertson makes frequent use of `dominion’ language,” says Martin. Robertson’s book, The Secret Kingdom, “has often been cited for its theonomy elements; and pluralists were made uncomfortable when, during his presidential campaign, he said he `would only bring Christians and Jews into the government,’ as well as when he later wrote, `There will never be world peace until God’s house and God’s people are given their rightful place of leadership at the top of the world.’ “

Martin also pointed out that Jay Grimstead, who led the Coalition on Revival, “brought Reconstructionists together with more mainstream evangelicals.” According to Martin, Grimstead explained “`I don’t call myself [a Reconstructionist],” but “A lot of us are coming to realize that the Bible is God’s standard of morality…in all points of history…and for all societies, Christian and non-Christian alike….It so happens that Rushdoony, Bahnsen, and North understood that sooner.”

Then Grimstead added, “there are a lot of us floating around in Christian leadership–James Kennedy is one of them–who don’t go all the way with the theonomy thing, but who want to rebuild America based on the Bible.”

In other words, let’s not jump the gun on assuming that every conservative Christian has totalitarian sympathies (at least not in the area of governance). Indeed, it’d be no different than the way many of them accuse secular liberals of seeking to impose a tyrannical form of social engineering.

Even if this group is serious in its intentions and influential, there’s no reason to assume that they’ll actually succeed in reorganizing society around their extreme form of theocracy – I have far more faith in the integrity of the political system and the reasonableness of the American public.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be wary of it. I’m sure many Christians would be just as opposed to Dominionist doctrines and aims as any secularist like me. It’s a good reminder of the importance of being well-informed and rational, especially as it pertains to ideologies that purport to alter the way people are governed.

If anyone is interested, you can read more about Dominionism from authors Rachel TabachnickBruce WilsonFrederick Clarkson. The first of them also did an excellent exposé on the podcast Point of Inquiry.

Decide for yourselves: is this stuff a real threat, or are scholars – and myself – being too alarmist?