Elton John slams religion, but unwisely

I have boundless respect for atheist celebrities who are willing to come out and risk their fame and public goodwill by expressing their views. Granted, this is doubtless easier for atheist celebs who happen to be gay and out, because they’ve already leapt one hurdle, so to speak.

Still, Elton John’s comments about religion this week will no doubt be snapped up by the “we’re so persecuted” camp in the fundie world that all us eeebul godless heathens are out to throw them in the Gulag. And I see that as being a little on the counterproductive side.

“From my point of view, I would ban religion completely. Organized religion doesn’t seem to work. It turns people into really hateful lemmings and it’s not really compassionate.”

The minute you use the word “ban,” you leave your opponents an opening to make the blanket claim that all atheists are anti-freedom, and to evoke images of such religion-suppressing cultures as Stalinist Russia or Cambodia under Pol Pot. Yes, I can fully sympathize with John’s anger at the way religion currently, even in free societies like America, denies basic freedoms to gays and oppresses them at every opportunity even without the benefit of totalitarian government helping them along. But remember, when you’re dealing with irrationalists who are convinced that Christians are the oppressed minority merely defending themselves against the depradations of homos and libruls and commies, you have, I think, a special responsibility to avoid emotionalist, hyperbolic rhetoric.

My response to religion would not be to ban it, but to promote education in critical thinking and skepticism. It really doesn’t take much of that for Christianity to crumble. So give people the cognitive tools they lack, and let them draw the obvious conclusions. Banning things is how fundies do their business. We can move humanity beyond that with rationalism alone.

Jesus Camp review

I went on Friday with about ten fellow Atheist Community members to see Jesus Camp, but I hadn’t gotten around to posting my review until now. This has already been discussed on both The Non-Prophets and The Atheist Experience, but I’m offering up a written version for your perusal.

First of all, this is not a pleasant movie in most respects. What it is boils down to watching an hour and a half of child abuse, at least from my perspective. If you experience the sort of morbid fascination that comes from watching a bleak horror movie, you may get the same sort of feeling from this movie: you’re not having fun while you watch it, but you may feel like you got something out of the experience of having watched it.

In a nutshell, the philosophy behind the camps is expressed by the camp leader, Becky Fischer. I can’t quote it exactly, but she says something like: “Muslims indoctrinate their kids in madrassas all their lives, so what we need to do is do MORE indoctrination so we can BEAT them!!”

The directors chose to focus much of their attention on a small handful of characters. Becky is one. There is an adorable little girl named Rachael, about nine, who is all excited over her love of the lord. And then there’s Levi, a twelve year old boy with an awful mullet, who very earnestly wants to be a preacher.

When I watched the movie, it seemed to me that what these kids were desperately seeking was NOT a personal relationship with God, but adult approval. For instance, there’s a scene where Rachael is in a bowling alley with her parents, and she spies a blonde woman sitting alone. Rachael rushes up to her table, plonks herself down, and starts witnessing to her — “Have you heard about Jesus?” The woman sits there and humors the cute kid and smiles in a bemused way when she leaves. Then Rachael rushes back to her dad, saying “Daddy! The lord worked through me to witness to that woman!” Daddy says “That’s the way to be obedient.” Then he gives her a big hug. It’s a simple reward scheme.

Then there is the scene where Levi is working on a sermon to deliver to the other camp kids. While he paces around practicing his speech, he also makes fake crowd-cheering noises to himself, imagining all the accolades he’ll receive on a job well done.

The adult antics are sometimes creepy and sometimes just weird. Before the kids arrive at camp, Becky is seen walking around checking to make sure that everything is working. And she’s also leading the other employees in a prayer that goes something like this: “God, please bless this electrical system. Please help the lights stay on and don’t let it be knocked out by thunderstorms. And please protect our PowerPoint presentation. Satan, I know how you just LOVE to get in our PowerPoint presentations and mess us up. Get out! You have no power over us here.” You probably think I’m making up the part about praying for the PowerPoint presentation. I’m not. Get thee hence, evil Blue Screen of Death!!!

During camp, the kids are alternately encouraged and harangued by adults. At one point, Becky is telling them: “God is speaking to me. He’s telling me that there are some people here who say that they’re Christians, even go to church every Sunday, but they’re not Christians. You have evil thoughts and don’t do the lord’s work.” Then she calls kids up to be “purified”: she pours Dannon bottled water on their hands, with the label clearly visible on camera. Most of the kids who come up are crying, possibly because they’re terrified that their impure thoughts have been discovered.

The particular types of indoctrination employed are striking. Early in the movie, before he arrives at camp, Levi is filmed being home-schooled by his mother. A caption helpfully points out that 75% of homeschooled kids come from an evangelical family. The mother reads a question from the textbook, which is clearly produced by an evangelical textbook mill. The book cites a quote about global warming, and then says “What is the logical flaw in the preceding sentence?” And Levi is all over it: he immediately recites the “fact” that “The temperature has ONLY risen by 0.6 degrees!” Which, even if it were a flaw in the argument, couldn’t be strictly called a logical one. This came as a surprise to me, because I expected (and got) anti-evolution propaganda, but I had no idea that the denial of global warming is actual a point of religious contention among these folks.

Later on, in camp, a middle aged man hits them with a sermon about baby-killing, AKA abortion. As a prop, he hands out tiny little plastic models of babies, claiming this is what fetuses are after some number of weeks. Then they do an exercise where they all put red tape over their mouths. On the tape, it says “Life”. I know this to be some kind of symbolism, but I can’t make heads or tails of what it is supposed to mean. He probably explained it but it didn’t get into the movie.

But by far the weirdest thing was when they brought in a cardboard cutout of George Bush and placed it by a podium at the front of the room. All of the kids were asked to come forward and pray for Bush, which they did — on their knees, stretching out their hands to touch the cardboard figure. It looked to me like they were praying to an idol, but Matt assures me that this is not the intention; it was more like a “laying on of hands” by proxy.

Despite weirdness like this, and despite frequent occasions when they talk ominously about the need to change or fix the country’s leadership to something more Godly, late in the movie Becky insists that what they do is “not political at all”. She also says, “Democracy is the best system of government on this earth. But that’s the problem: It’s OF THIS EARTH. And we’re focus on the kingdom of God.”

There were a few scenes that hinted at budding rebellion. There was one blond boy who was sharing his testimonial (or something) and he just started saying “I try to be a good servant for God, but it’s just so hard sometimes… I mean, you can’t see Him or hear Him… I know He’s there but sometimes I just can’t feel it.” It was really sad, and the boy obviously found this a gut-wrenching confession. In another scene, the kids are playing around with flashlights and telling ghost stories, which is what normal kids do at summer camp. An adult barges in and tells them they’re not allowed to tell ghost stories here, because it doesn’t please God.

During the scene where Levi is writing his sermon, he says, either on camera or in a voiceover, “When I’m writin’, it doesn’t feel like it’s me writin’ the words. I can feel my arm moving, but it feels like God is moving my arm and telling me what to say.”

In what felt to me like the climax of the movie, the kids are done with Jesus Camp and many of them make a trek to New Life Church, the largest mega-church in the United States. They listen to Ted Haggard speak — that would be this asshat, the guy who chewed out Richard Dawkins in the first Root of All Evil episode, a man who meets with George Bush on a weekly basis.

The kids are obviously inspired by the sermon, and Levi excitedly meets Ted and shakes his hand. He tells Ted “I’m a preacher too!” and then he starts talking about his material. Ted cuts him off: “Do you feel like people listen to you because you have good material, or because you’re a cute kid?” Levi sort of sputters a bit, and Ted says “Keep using your cuteness until you’re about thirty. By then, you’ll have developed good content.” Ted turns away in his smirky way, obviously believing it’s good advice and a job well done. Levi seems crestfallen.

And why wouldn’t he be? He actually believed that God was taking control of his arm and writing his sermons for him. Does God write good sermons, or does he rely on “cuteness” to make up for bad sermons?

These kids live in a carefully constructed bubble. Thanks to homeschooling
, they don’t seem to have contact with adults other than their parents and the deliberately screened counsellors who preach an identical message. (A counsellor tells a kid something extraordinarily stupid, and the kid responds “That’s just what ma daddy says!”) They have fake textbooks that are clearly not subject to any academic standards. They only seem to come in contact with people outside their bubble long enough to witness for a short time and then run away.

Now personally, I would love to have that little girl come up and try to tell ME about Jesus. (“That’s interesting, little girl! So how do you know there is a God, anyway?”) If this bubble were burst and they came in contact with people of other faiths, would it shatter their faith? Very unlikely, although I know it has happened to some people. But my point is that it’s very likely these kids will get through most of their lives completely ignorant of the existence of people with any other views, and will probably be very badly equipped to understand anything outside the narrowly focused reality that their parents crafted for them. If the camp directors really succeed in grooming future world leaders, as they hinted they would like to, that is a terrifyingly undesirable trait to have.

At the end of the movie, Becky is interviewed directly and says, “I think some liberals will see all this and be very scared at what we’re doing.” She hit it square on the head. But she doesn’t say it in an apologetic way, of course: she’s PROUD that we find her methods creepy and disturbing. After all, if you’re not being persecuted, then you’re not a real Christian.