Beware the evangelicals

While church attendance seems to be declining across (most of) the globe, and religious adherence generally falling (except for Islam, which is growing), we’re far from being out of the woods. Evangelical threats to liberty continue to haunt us, despite the fact that – judging from American Christians – most of the faithful are doing their utmost to undermine the faith, mostly by being moronic:

Only 40 percent of Americans can name more than four of the Ten Commandments, and a scant half can cite any of the four authors of the Gospels. Twelve percent believe Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. This failure to recall the specifics of our Christian heritage may be further evidence of our nation’s educational decline, but it probably doesn’t matter all that much in spiritual or political terms. Here is a statistic that does matter: Three quarters of Americans believe the Bible teaches that “God helps those who help themselves.” That is, three out of four Americans believe that this uber-American idea, a notion at the core of our current individualist politics and culture, which was in fact uttered by Ben Franklin, actually appears in Holy Scripture. The thing is, not only is Franklin’s wisdom not biblical; it’s counter-biblical. Few ideas could be further from the gospel message, with its radical summons to love of neighbor. On this essential matter, most Americans—most American Christians—are simply wrong, as if 75 percent of American scientists believed that Newton proved gravity causes apples to fly up.

The problem is that once people lose the capacity to generate reasoned conclusions for themselves, and once their base of evidence from which they make their inferences is so detached from reality, the opportunity increases for charlatans to step forth, selling them various package holidays in the hereafter. And the more marginal a faith becomes, perhaps the more strident its adherents become through their fear of becoming redundant. So, whereas Christians used to be all about peace, love and forgiveness (at least according to my childhood memories), they increasingly seem to be about intolerance and hate (with increasingly rare exceptions).

Yesterday, The Guardian reported that Uganda looks likely to pass a law making homosexuality a capital offence, “joining 37 other countries in the continent where American evangelical Christian groups are increasingly spreading bigotry”. Now, of course it’s true that many Christians would not condone this. I would like to be able to say “most”, rather than “many”, but the two trends described above make “most” sound far too optimistic. If the gradual decline of religion is making the religious more strident, and if this is combined with an increasing trend of the religious no longer knowing what their religion is about, the extremists tend to set the agenda, and the more civilised believers sit on/wring their hands, despairing of what has become of the church.

We should not complacently think that this sort of thing is impossible in South Africa – we have the growing influence of the National Interfaith Leadership Council to worry about, along with more the regular cast of god-botherers such as Errol Naidoo, who has not shown himself to be averse to supporting prejudicial stereotypes with regard to homosexuality. It’s far too infrequent that we see the more tolerant sort of Christian protesting the manner in which people like Naidoo and Immelman express themselves on these topics, yet us atheists are frequently accused of caricaturing or misunderstanding religion.

How can we not caricature, when the only religious pronouncements that reach the public media sound like bad attempts at satire?

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  • http://ionian-enchantment.blogspot.com/ Michael Meadon

    Wow. I didn’t know they were THIS stupid. But it makes sense in light of: http://scienceblogs.com/notrocketscience/2009/11/creating_god_in_ones_own_image.php

    I’m not so sure, though, that you can talk of a trend of greater ignorance. Do we know previous generations of Christians knew more about their religion?

    • http://synapses.co.za Jacques

      Thanks for that link, Michael. As to your question, we don’t know that earlier generations of Christians knew more, I suppose. But until the age of 20 or so, I was quite heavily involved with the church, and I certainly remember a more considered and nuanced discource being prevalent then. Bad evidence for all sorts of reasons, I know, but perhaps we can say that they are likely to be more ignorant and superficial in their theology now, on the grounds that people are in general more ill-disciplined, epistemologically (cf. attention economy and the like)?

  • http://ionian-enchantment.blogspot.com/ Michael Meadon

    I’m rather suspicious of claims about trends of this kind: it’s suspiciously old-fogeyish “back in MY day…”. I’d certainly like to see data about trends in bad epistemology before I’d form an opinion either way. It seems to me that people have always been stupid (or, more charitably, epistemologically confused) and probably always will be.

  • JPR

    Germane in a general fashion, particular to America:
    “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’.” — Isaac Asimov

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