Evangelists panic when they’re losing ground

Hark, for I’m going to tell you a tale of olden times. Back in the days of yore, when our lives were little better than those of the cavemen, there were no podcasts. In those days, all we had for entertainment on long drives was an archaic device known as “The Radio.” On this radio, I used to listen to a lot of Christian shows, with my favorite being “The Bible Answer Man” with Hank Hanegraaff.

In these more enlightened times, I have so much regular entertainment to choose from that I can easily fill all my driving time and more with shows which confirm my own personal beliefs and prejudices, and much of the time I do. But when Beth asked her Facebook friends what fundie podcasts she could listen to last week, it reminded me. How is Hank doing? I really should start listening again.

And I’m so glad I did. Because if I hadn’t listened to the August 1 episode, I never would have run into this great article by Jerry Coyne. It’s titled: “As atheists know, you can be good without God.”

To put it mildly, Hank did not like this article.

Here are a few excerpts.

…[I]t’s clear that even for the faithful, God cannot be the source of morality but at best a transmitter of some human-generated morality.

This isn’t just philosophical rumination, because God — at least the God of Christians and Jews — repeatedly sanctioned or ordered immoral acts in the Old Testament. These include slavery (Leviticus 25:44-46), genocide (Deuteronomy 7:1-2; 20:16-18), the slaying of adulterers and homosexuals, and the stoning of non-virgin brides (Leviticus 20:10, 20:13, Deuteronomy 22:20-21).

Was God being moral when, after some children made fun of the prophet Elisha’s bald head, he made bears rip 42 of them to pieces (2 Kings 2:23-24)? Even in the New Testament, Jesus preaches principles of questionable morality, barring heaven to the wealthy (Matthew 19:24), approving the beating of slaves (Luke 12:47-48), and damning sinners to the torments of hell (Mark 9:47-48). Similar sentiments appear in the Quran.

Should we be afraid that a morality based on our genes and our brains is somehow inferior to one handed down from above? Not at all. In fact, it’s far better, because secular morality has a flexibility and responsiveness to social change that no God-given morality could ever have.

Sentiments I think most of us can get behind, but that’s no big surprise, right? Most of you readers are on Jerry Coyne’s side, as I am.

Now I don’t know if you’ve ever heard Hank Hanegraaff, but he’s got this very calm, very soothing voice, with what I would describe as almost a Jim Henson-like quality. He sounds reassuring, authoritative, certain of his facts. Most of the time.

On this particular occasion, as he talked about the terrible injustice of Coyne’s article, he just kept getting more and more agitated. He didn’t actually refute these claims about the Bible, mind you — he threw them out there, dismissed them by saying they were “out of context,” and then said he’d go over them in depth on another day. Which I loved, because there’s no more effective way to stoke an opposing argument than to repeat it without refuting it properly.

By the time he was done with the subject, Hank was doing a passable impression of Yosemite Sam, bringing up the usual red herrings like Mao Zedong and Pol Pot (even implying that Pol Pot was just a humanist trying earnestly to set up an “egalitarian society,” which made me say “WTF?”)

The best line of the show, however, was when Hank said in a voice of grave and sorrowful concern: “The thing that I find particularly troubling about this article… is that when you read it without discernment skills, you can end up believing it.”

Dead on, Hank. Of course, with proper analysis, it’s even more plausible. But I think Jerry Coyne should graciously accept the compliment that his rhetoric is so good that people without discernment skills are more likely to accept his reasoning than the Bible stories that they usually take as a given.

That’s what bugs evangelists about the internet in general. They’re used to stating their case in a vacuum. When someone like Hank Hanegraaff says, as he did to a caller later in the show, “God loves you so much that He sent His son to die for you,” he’s counting on the assumption that some rude and dickish atheist isn’t going to pop up and ask something like “How do you know that?” And when they solemnly proclaim that only God makes you moral, they hate it when you point to passages where Jesus endorses beating your slaves.

Similar sentiments abound these days; just a few weeks ago, Josh McDowell was saying that “The Internet has given atheists, agnostics, skeptics, the people who like to destroy everything that you and I believe, the almost equal access to your kids as your youth pastor and you have… whether you like it or not.”

Equal access? That’s what we’re gaining that’s so terrifying? Apparently religion can only thrive if they can muzzle the atheists, shut them up, shame them into not making a peep while we’re being slandered.

Keep on scaring them, folks.

Todd Friel does not like VeggieTales

It’s been a while since I tuned in to Christian radio, but I was driving around this weekend and turned on Wretched Radio with Todd Friel. Todd was bewailing the bad influence that the computer-animated cartoon VeggieTales is having on Christian kids.

Todd brought up data claimed by Ken Ham, who says that regular participants in Sunday School are more likely to leave the church and disbelieve the Bible.

On the show, Todd tied this in with VeggieTales. He made the case that:

  1. Sunday school tries to present sanitized Bible stories for kids, so they learn them as cutesy fairy tales rather than stories of an angry and vengeful God, by whom we need to be saved from sin.
  2. The cartoon offers cute little morality plays, also presenting of tidied up versions of Old Testament stories but never really inserting a Veggie Jesus into the action. Instead of salvation through grace, they emphasize things like responsible behavior and doing the right things for good reasons, rather than because the Bible said so.

I don’t know about you, but this makes me think that I ought to give VeggieTales a second look as something more worthwhile than typical brainwashing for kids.

Anyway, here’s the thesis Todd eventually got around to presenting. Kids are leaving the church in droves because they learn the Bible in a similar context to fairy tales and other childish stories. When they outgrow the fairy tales, they outgrow the Bible as well. To remedy this, kids deserve to learn the unvarnished truth. We need to see less secularization of churches in order to please their congregants, and we need to get back to teaching hard truths about how everybody deserves hell, and are only saved through grace. When we don’t deliver that, we drive our kids from Christianity.

As you might expect, I have a slightly different take.

First of all, sanitized presentations of the Bible aimed at kids, along with megachurches loaded with secular entertainment — rock music and live skit performances and “cool” young pastors — exist because people have already been drifting away from being seriously devoted to fairy tales for a long time now. They are trying to grab onto and hold people in any way that they can.

I don’t think the cuteness of VeggieTales is the problem. I think it’s an attempted solution to the underlying problem, which is that the Bible stories are childish and shouldn’t make all that much sense to grownups.

It seems to me that in generations past, people went for religious explanations because they were the best game in town. Observe how theists love to tout intellectual luminaries such as Isaac Newton and Thomas Jefferson as “creationists.” Easy for them to say, since both men lived well before Darwin made a naturalistic proposal to explain the origin of human life. In their time, there was simply no alternative to the default position of a designer.

It’s a lot harder to maintain this belief now, simply because a lot of scientific progress has been made in general, and most kids learn the basics of science in school. This is one really obvious reason why fundamentalists in general are so down on public schooling and opt for homeschooling at much higher rates than the general public. And it’s absolutely true that when kids go to college, they are much more likely to reject religion.

I think that Todd may be right that kids who watch VeggieTales eventually rethink their faith when they realize to what extent the show is a silly cartoon just like SpongeBob, with little basis in reality. It’s less clear to me that the problem would be mitigated if there were no VeggieTales. I would say that making the Bible palatable for children is simply a band-aid on an ongoing problem, that as we live in a more rational world, it will become increasingly difficult for fundamentalism to compete successfully for space among people’s memes.

As for Sunday School, I think this may be yet another case of confusing correlation with causation. My guess would be that going to Sunday School and rejecting religion probably share a root cause. It may well be the case that parents who encourage kids to read and learn about the Bible more (as opposed to just listening to what they’re told about it) are probably interested in educated kids in general, and education leads kids to drop their faith.

Christian radio hypes gold. A lot.

I’ve been listening to Christian radio lately, and I’m hearing a LOT of commercial programs hyping investments in gold. Now, I’m not really up on current prices of precious metals. I did do a show where I mentioned Liberty Dollars, which I consider to be a massive ripoff.

I’m generally interested in scams and ripoffs, and my skepticism sensor get triggered loudly when I hear a program (1) on Christian radio (2) involving pushy marketing hype, that (3) pushes an investment that is perfect for EVERYONE, and (4) predicts financial doom for anyone who does not participate.

This last bit, as I have probably said before, is a hallmark of both sneaky advertising and religion. It short-circuits your ability to think rationally about an idea on its merits, instead cutting straight to emotions and panicking you by making you think that you’ll be tortured forever (or whatever) if you dare to even ask questions about the concept.

So in this case, what’s at stake is the total meltdown of all world markets, where stocks will be worthless and a dollar in the bank will be about as valuable as a Russian ruble. Only precious metals can save you from a fate of scraping food out of dumpsters for your children. Very, very soon now.

Look. I don’t have a problem with gold as an investment. It is indeed the case that as the economy gets worse, the value of gold rises with respect to the dollar; as, indeed, will your pounds, francs, lira, and yen. If the dollar is doing badly, it makes sense to own something that is not a dollar. Simple as that.

Unlike most stock indices, the value of gold has actually increased pretty significantly since the year 2000. With hindsight, it’s been a good recent investment.

But watch out, because after a commodity rises in value is not the best time to buy. There was a stock bubble, then a housing bubble, and the fact that gold is not rising doesn’t mean that gold is going to do well forever. I’m not saying it’s a scam, but the hype currently surrounding gold does set my spidey-sense tingling like crazy. When lots of voices start loudly pitching something, it usually means there’s money to be made — not by you, but from you. They’ve probably latched on to a pretty good gig in convincing people to shell out their money for something much more expensive than it’s worth.

Anyway, the question is, why Christian radio? Is it just because there are so many gullible people there who are already conditioned to respond to threats of impending doom?