Jesus is the excuse that never fails


Over the last few days, I watched The Family on Netflix, a five part series on this shadow cabal of fanatical Christians bent on shaping the American government. It’s horrifying. But then, I read the book, also horrifying.

It’s a kind of understated horror, though — it’s not sensationalist at all, and that might be a flaw in the documentary. These people march through the halls of power, and all they do is say Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. They say nice things about the power of Christ, but they don’t push the Bible or fundamentalism, but only constantly invoke the name of Jesus to authorize their use of power…for anything. There are these interviews and recordings of smug, confident people asserting with unshakeable certainty that Jesus wants them to do the things that they do, and the evidence that they are exercising Jesus’ will is that they have power. Power itself is proof that God wants them to use that power.

There are little hiccups in their philosophy, like John Ensign, the former Senator who thought his title meant he could cheat on his wife and use his position for a coverup, or Mark Sanford, the South Carolina governor who made “hiking the Appalachian trail” a synonym for having an affair. It’s funny how the personal peccadillos get them in trouble, but they apply the same attitude to everything, including acts of corruption and sedition. The laws don’t apply to them, because Jesus.

It’s a documentary that is also rather frustrating as an atheist, because it never engages with the lie at the heart of the Family. They don’t know Jesus. Jesus is not talking to them. Jesus is dead, and the godly prophet they imagine is a fiction. In a few places it tries to rebut the Holy Certainty of the Family by arguing that Jesus wasn’t that bad guy, that he also wanted to help the poor, for instance, but that kindly Jesus is also only in your imagination and is also another example of Holy Certainty.

You can use Jesus to argue for whatever you want, he’s never going to speak up and tell you you’re wrong. The only way to win that debate is to never engage in it — every time Jesus is your backup, it’s just your id and predispositions speaking, and don’t allow them to pretend otherwise.

The Jesus thing is also never ending. I hope our next president is someone who can say “no” to the National Prayer Breakfast, a creation of the Family, but I doubt that even the candidates I like will be willing to do that.

Comments

  1. Akira MacKenzie says

    You can use Jesus to argue for whatever you want, he’s never going to speak up and tell you you’re wrong. The only way to win that debate is to never engage in it — every time Jesus is your backup, it’s just your id and predispositions speaking, and don’t allow them to pretend otherwise.

    If you don’t already have them on your podcast feeds, listen to most recent The Scathing Atheist that just dropped this morning. In this week’s “diatribe,” Noah describes discussion with the Christians in the po-duck Georgia town he’s currently living and he finds that their belief in their God and Jesus, while strong, lacks any sort actual theology behind it. While this may seem a positive outcome, Noah worries that without any sort of firm foundation of dogma, these people can use “Jesus” as a justification to do anything, no matter how horrible.

    I imagine it’s just these sort of Christian voters that members of The Family love to court.

  2. says

    Yes. The Family is quite explicit about that — they’re kind of anti-theology, and basically reject most of the Bible, except for their cherry-picked parables that fit their ideology.

  3. jrkrideau says

    their belief in their God and Jesus, while strong, lacks any sort actual theology behind it.

    I was listening to an interview with the US journalist and author Chris Hedges a few months ago. He has a theology degree from Harvard. His remarks on Evangelical “ministers” (aka scam artists) were scathing.
    I got the impression that he felt that their biblical and theological knowledge was the equivalent to Deepak Chopra’s knowledge of quantum physics.

  4. Akira MacKenzie says

    jrkrideau @ 4

    I’ll take your word for it, but I tend to shut down whenever I come across Hedges’ name since he’s one of those “liberal” Christians who still despises atheists as much as any Right-wing Bible-beater would.

  5. PaulBC says

    I don’t care if it
    Rains or freezes
    As long as I’ve got my
    Plastic Jesus
    Ridin’ on the dashboard
    Of my car

    Sorry, not really relevant, but it brought to mind my favorite scene from Cool Hand Luke. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dG9tuuznL1Y

    The fact the Luke chooses to commemorate his mother this way hints at an entire backstory about the kind of humor and irreverence he grew up with. It’s one of the rare instances where there’s no way anyone would predict this scene coming up but it fits perfectly.

  6. PaulBC says

    “Yes. The Family is quite explicit about that — they’re kind of anti-theology, and basically reject most of the Bible, except for their cherry-picked parables that fit their ideology.”

    Well, I’ve posted this before, but I still wonder how anyone takes Jerry Falwell, Jr. seriously as a religious leader when he mixes up two distinct and well-known passages from the gospel of John (habitually by his own account). I caught it directly listening to NPR but here’s a good write-up (from a religious blogger) https://www.deanbaker.org/2016/07/jerry-falwell-jrs-misuse-of-the-bible-to-support-donald-trump.html

    What really caught my attention was the misuse of the story of the Woman at the Well (John 4:1-42.) Mr. Falwell is conflating that story with the Woman caught in Adultery (John 8:1-11.) They are two different people, two very different stories. If Mr. Falwell “always” tells this story, he should know better.

    PZ is right. Not just cherry-picked but composite gospel passages. WTF? I grew up Catholic and never attended anything called “Bible study” but I heard these enough times as readings at mass to know they were different passages.

    It really doesn’t surprise me when I read reports about the Pew Religious Knowledge Quiz showing that evangelicals are among the least knowledgable on religion aside from their own. I wonder how much they know about their own for that matter.

    Atheists and agnostics, among the most knowledgable on average according to Pew, presumably include a lot of people who were serious enough about their birth religion to learn its teachings and question them, as well as curious enough about other human beings to find out what they believe and come to the fairly obvious conclusion that it can’t all be true. The alternative is that you just happened to be born into the “right” one and that is a strange sort of reasoning but I guess it works for some people.

  7. PaulBC says

    I misread “Hedges” as “Hitchens.” Looked him up. Not the same person, OK. And capybara and chupacabra are distinct creatures, only one of which is mythical (now if I could remember which). Maybe you don’t really get old; your brain just runs out of space for the new stuff. I have decided that the tree-climbing goats do not exist just to conserve storage. I’ll have to think carefully if there’s room for this “Hedges” fellow.

  8. thirdmill301 says

    A few relevant biblical quotations:

    “Her prophets have smeared whitewash for them, seeing false visions and divining lies for them, saying, “Thus says the Lord God,” when the Lord has not spoken.” Ezekiel 22:28.

    “The Lord did not send you, but you have persuaded this people to trust in a lie.” Jeremiah 28:15.

    “The visions of your prophets were empty and deceptive . . . The oracles they saw for you were empty and misleading.” Lamentations 2:14

    “They see false visions and speak lying divinations. They claim, “Thus declares the Lord,” when the Lord did not send them.” Ezekiel 13:6

    “Have you not seen a false vision and spoken a lying divination when you proclaimed, “Thus declares the Lord,” even though I had not spoken?” Ezekiel 13:7.

  9. PaulBC says

    Jeremiah 28:15 is a keeper (or the part of the verse you quoted). The others are a bit verbose. I’ll need to keep that one in reserve. I’d love to quote it to Jerry Falwell, Jr. and all the other pretenders.

    How do you read a book that warns repeatedly against false prophets and then conclude “Yeah, but mine is the real deal.”

  10. PaulBC says

    Artor@13 Nope. It’s a computer simulation and they have been making up a shitload of new animals in recent years just to confuse my in my dotage. There’s always a tip-off. Capybaras. Real? Yeah, right, obviously ripped off from “rodents of unusual size” in The Princess Bride. They are recycling a lot of old material and I’m onto them.

    Not sure about tardigrades. They are too weird to expect anyone to believe in them.

  11. willj says

    <blockquote<Not according to their thinking. I’m not convinced there was a Jesus.

    There may or may not have been a Jesus, but if there was, I’m sure he would be shocked at what he has become. Pretty much the same as any famous dead person. PZ excepted, of course.

  12. Rob Grigjanis says

    Akira @5:

    he [Hedges]’s one of those “liberal” Christians who still despises atheists as much as any Right-wing Bible-beater would.

    Bullshit. If there are any atheists he despises, they are Harris and Hitchens, for the same reasons many here would despise them. What he really hates are also the things many here hate; the institutions (including the church and the democratic party) that have failed us. Yeah, he differs from many atheists in that he thinks it’s humans and human institutions (including organized religion) which are the problem, rather than religion itself. But he’s still been one of the most powerful voices for social justice I’ve come across.

  13. Rob Grigjanis says

    PZ @7: He gave a bad talk? Maybe he was having a bad day. I’ve seen some great talks by him.

    As for the “plagiarism”, here‘s another take.

    (The next step will be to consistently refer to the fact that Hedges has been “accused of plagiarism in the past” — typical Neocon circle-jerk disinformation hatchet job)

    Yeah, not just Neocons. It’s real easy to pass on smears of people you disapprove of, innit?

  14. says

    This was a lecture I attended. My fellow liberal faculty all left it shaking their heads at how terrible it was, and rumors to the contrary, they weren’t all fanatical atheist zealots.

  15. Akira MacKenzie says

    But he’s still been one of the most powerful voices for social justice I’ve come across.

    He’s still a superstitious prat who believes in magical beings, so that makes him shit in my book. As for “social justice,” to bastardize Diderot, humanity will never be free until the last theist is strangled with the entrails of the last capitalist (especially if the former a fucking Christian). A just world doesn’t include mystical barbarians like Hedges.

  16. Rob Grigjanis says

    Akira @19:

    A just world doesn’t include mystical barbarians like Hedges.

    But it does include non-mystical barbarians like you? No thanks.

  17. PaulBC says

    I think it’s fine for people to hold onto religious belief for whatever reason. It is hard to shake off such a big piece of identity. For many people it appears essential to their “pursuit of happiness” and far be it from me to interfere if they’re not harming anyone.

    I am on the other hand leery of people who make religious belief into their brand identity. Glancing over Hedge’s wikipedia page, he seems to support a lot of causes I agree with, but why pick a fight with atheists? Only a small minority are assholes about it in my experience. Some are among the kindest thinkers and writers, such as Kurt Vonnegut.

    Tangentially, I happened to listen to most of Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari as an audiobook before it came due at the library, and it has been hard to get out again. Without much context (a coworker recommended it) I get the feeling it is very popular in some circles, but it seemed kind of trite to me, and also overstated the case that “everything is a religion” by appealing to the point that human cultures have had very different norms. I mean, is this supposed to be new and edgy?

    It did start me thinking about cultural norms. Take spectrums: liberty-authoritarianism, creativity-tradition, mercy-discipline. It’s true that human cultures value these things to different degrees, but I think a point that Harari misses is that humanity universally sets the boundaries and parameters of these concepts. You will still find those who value liberty in an authoritarian culture and vice versa. We do not invent values out of whole cloth but select them, and often it is possible at least to understand why others rate them differently. For instance, I rate liberty very highly, but I can enter the mind of someone who believes it is more important to follow rules to the letter. I could probably find something nobody values (e.g. wearing a rotting fish on a string on your neck as it putrefies) and get widespread agreement that this is unpleasant to all (maybe I am wrong about this one example, but I am pretty sure there are some universals).

    To say that “everything” is a religion (and for Harari that includes Enlightenment values) seems to extend a concept to the point at which it no longer has any meaning.

  18. says

    A link for you, PaulBC.

    As for Hedges, I’ve rarely seen anyone so quick to viciously other and really try to exclude from social consideration those with whom he disagrees. I haven’t paid attention to him for a while, but previously I saw him write that way about evangelicals, atheists, and anarchists, and that was enough. Here’s his attack on anarchists in 2012 – literally titled “The Cancer in Occupy.” From a response by David Graeber:

    …Mainly I am writing as an appeal to conscience. Your conscience, since clearly you are a sincere and well-meaning person who wishes this movement to succeed. I beg you: Please consider what I am saying. Please bear in mind as I say this that I am not a crazy nihilist, but a reasonable person who is one (if just one) of the original authors of the Gandhian strategy OWS adopted—as well as a student of social movements, who has spent many years both participating in such movements, and trying to understand their history and dynamics.

    I am appealing to you because I really do believe the kind of statement you made is profoundly dangerous.

    The reason I say this is because, whatever your intentions, it is very hard to read your statement as anything but an appeal to violence. After all, what are you basically saying about what you call “Black Bloc anarchists”?

    1) they are not part of us

    2) they are consciously malevolent in their intentions

    3) they are violent

    4) they cannot be reasoned with

    5) they are all the same

    6) they wish to destroy us

    7) they are a cancer that must be excised

    Surely you must recognize, when it’s laid out in this fashion, that this is precisely the sort of language and argument that, historically, has been invoked by those encouraging one group of people to physically attack, ethnically cleanse, or exterminate another—in fact, the sort of language and argument that is almost never invoked in any other circumstance. After all, if a group is made up exclusively of violent fanatics who cannot be reasoned with, intent on our destruction, what else can we really do? This is the language of violence in its purest form. Far more than “fuck the police.” To see this kind of language employed by someone who claims to be speaking in the name of non-violence is genuinely extraordinary….

    Hedges is bad news.

  19. says

    (Speaking of hostile mischaracterizations, and more directly relevant here, Sharlet’s in The Family is the most bizarre description of the Wobblies I’ve ever read, bar none. Like, he didn’t crack a single scholarly work on the topic. It was very bad.)

  20. PaulBC says

    As for Hedges, it doesn’t help that his face makes me think of a cross between Bill Dembski and one of the Koch brothers (I forget which one). I realize that is a super-bad reason for anything, but given what I have read above I’m thinking I’ll run with it.

  21. Rob Grigjanis says

    PaulBC @24: “Wikipedia says he doesn’t like atheists, a couple of things he’s written have been trashed by some atheists and anarchists, and he looks a bit like some horrible people. That’s enough for me!”

    We need more deep thinkers like you, Paul.

  22. PaulBC says

    Rob Grigjanis@25 I was being facetious. Honestly, I’ll give him a chance if I have the time. I get the impression he’s not my cup of tea.

  23. Rob Grigjanis says

    PaulBC @26: My point wasn’t really that you even should give him a chance. Life’s too short, etc. It’s the apparent rush to judgment that bothered me. Some people genuinely have a problem with Hedges, and I get that. I can understand someone reading some of the stuff he’s written and being pissed off. I think he’s misfired several times. But IMO he’s one of those people whose passion for justice leaves the world a better place for him having been in it.

  24. PaulBC says

    Rob Grigjanis@25

    More seriously, there’s not always enough time to think as deeply as I’d like, so I take shortcuts. Not the photo on the wikipedia page, but statements like this:

    In March 2008, Hedges published a book titled I Don’t Believe in Atheists, in which he expresses his belief that atheism presents a danger that is similar to religious extremism.

    Assuming this is an accurate summary of his book’s thesis, I can readily arrive at the conclusion that I’m likely to disagree. Most atheists are about as far from religious extremists as it gets. They keep their atheism to themselves. Conceivably there are atheist extremists who present a danger similar to religious extremists, but the issue here is no longer atheism/theism but ideological extremism.

    A lot of thinkers I admire count as atheists without wearing it on their sleeves: Kurt Vonnegut, imaginative writer and decent man who cared about people, Ursula K. Le Guin, SF author way ahead of her time and still relevant today, Gore Vidal, maybe not the nicest man but a witty and informed literary stylist, Richard Feynman, brilliant physicist and great joker, Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of today’s most insightful political commentators.

    And that is just a list that I can flash-verify as atheist. I am sure there are many people I admire who just never made a point one way or the other or even continued to follow a religious faith for reasons of culture and family but had long since stopped believing.

    These are about as close to “religious extremists” as Omar Khayyam is to being a member of al Qaeda.

    (Were there “atheist extremists”? Sure, the former Soviet Union was presumably full of them, or so I was taught, but that is a problem of one totalitarian system, not atheism as such.)

    Now maybe Wikipedia has misrepresented Hedges (you want to try to correct it?) but the title of his book is not promising either. He does not believe in atheists? I believe deeply in a number of people who happen to be atheists. I believe they exist obviously, and I believe their work has a lot of value and I believe the worldview from which they reached it has some merit.

    So, you know, I can drill down on this and may, time permitting, but my best current approximation is that I would disagree.

  25. PaulBC says

    So I followed PZ’s link about Hedges’s talk and I think I get the idea. https://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2014/01/28/the-new-atheists-as-secular-fundamentalists/

    Maybe I would even agree with Hedges on some things depending on what he means by “atheists.” But he’s not Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty. When he says “atheist”, what it means to everyone else should hold more weight than what it means to him. Is his gripe with “New Atheists”? That’s not what his book title says.

    If his thesis is that atheists with an extremist program are dangerous extremists, it’s a tautology. What exactly is he saying?

  26. Rob Grigjanis says

    PaulBC @28:

    Assuming this is an accurate summary of his book’s thesis

    It’s not. I’ve only read excerpts from the book, but they’re enough to see that the title is sardonic, and that his problem isn’t with atheism per se any more than it is with theism per se. But he does see New Atheism as a sort of mirror image of religious fundamentalism. I think he based that on some exchanges/debates with Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, and I also think his critique was way off the mark.

    On the other hand, I’ve read a lot of his articles, and seen numerous interviews and talks he’s given, and my best current approximation remains as in my #27.

  27. John Morales says

    Rob:

    But he [Hedges] does see New Atheism as a sort of mirror image of religious fundamentalism.

    A pretty distorted one, then — both may express certitude, but there is no analogue for Jesus in New Atheism.

  28. PaulBC says

    Rob Grigjanis@30 Is this a fair review? https://thehumanist.com/magazine/september-october-2008/magazine_article/i-dont-believe-in-atheists (if you get a chance to read it)

    I suspect I would agree strongly with Hedges on some things. The anti-atheism bit strikes me as an odd fixation though.

    It’s possible that I’m dismissing the significance of “new” atheists. If I had to pick a face of atheism advocacy for my generation, it would probably be Carl Sagan, subtly in the original Cosmos (which I watched as a teen) and more forcefully in his written work (as early as Dragons of Eden). He was still not “extremist.” He might scoff at religious people, but I think he understood that we all have to live together. (I didn’t add him to my list above, because he was closer to wearing atheism on his sleeve; my point was that for the majority, it’s incidental.)

    I’m really not as familiar with Sam Harris and the like. I don’t see what I need out of them. There are some pretty simple arguments for doubting religious faith, the simplest being the point that world religions contradict each other and can’t all be true, and there is no reason to favor one (indeed particularly if it just happens to be the one you were born into). I figured that one out long before I actually rejected my birth religion in any meaningful sense.

    I doubt that there is a dangerous movement of atheists afoot, new or otherwise. In fact, I think the key danger is that by posing it as something edgy and offensive, they roll back the achievements of generations of atheists who have been influential and well-received while never trying to hide their atheism. Even the largely forgotten Robert Ingersoll was only edgy insofar as he was talking to believers. His humanism was of a gentle sort with benign intent.

    So, assholes are assholes, and extremists and extremists, and perhaps there are some extremist assholes who have figured out that “atheist” is something they can use to scare and offend people, like Alice Cooper or Marilyn Manson, but buying into them as the norm of atheism is the real mistake here.

    The secondary one is considering them a serious threat and not a sideshow. The serious threat consists of those with actual power in the dominant culture. The reason Hedges gets it right about the Iraq War is that he picked an adversary (the US government) who really did have the power to commit wrong on a global scale. Sam Harris annoys a bunch of people, but does not pose a serious threat.

  29. Rob Grigjanis says

    John @31:

    But he [Hedges] does see New Atheism as a sort of mirror image of religious fundamentalism.

    A pretty distorted one, then…

    Yes, hence my “I also think his critique was way off the mark”.

    …both may express certitude, but there is no analogue for Jesus in New Atheism

    Tell that to Harris’ fans.

  30. says

    There are these interviews and recordings of smug, confident people asserting with unshakeable certainty that Jesus wants them to do the things that they do, and the evidence that they are exercising Jesus’ will is that they have power. Power itself is proof that God wants them to use that power.

    Take god out of it, and this is pretty much a summary of Henry Kissinger’s political philosophy: power is an end in itself, and when you have power you must use it to justify having it.

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