Refuting the likes of Fox News’ popular talk-show host Bill O’Reilly and the razor-tongued television pundit and spewer-out of bestsellers Ann Coulter may seem pointless. They say the same things time and again to Fox’s mostly white, badly informed audience which is in danger of dying off; the median age of O’Reilly’s viewers is seventy-two. However, when it comes to religion, much of what they say reflects tacit anti-rationalist assumptions shared by far too many people from all walks of life – assumptions that must be challenged and refuted.
A case in point: on April 2, O’Reilly opened his show with a segment entitled “The War on Christianity Getting Even Worse.” In it, he provides a distressing video overview of recent terrorist attacks against and executions of Christians in Africa and Pakistan, and declares that “Christians are being slaughtered all over the place.” He segues to the United States, where “verbal attacks against Christians are the headline,” and “some far-left people . . . are smearing Americans who oppose things like abortion and gay marriage,” from which he concludes that “it is open season on Christians.”
The evidence? “Well-known religion hater” Bill Maher (shown calling religions “stupid and dangerous”) has a “free pass to bash people of faith,” with his “vicious behavior toward Christianity largely ignored in the press.”
O’Reilly presents results from an Associated Press - Gallup poll according to which 57 percent of Americans favor letting “wedding-related businesses with religious objections” opt out of serving gay marriages, as well as a Public Religion Research Institute survey showing that 54 percent of Americans believe their religious liberty is under threat. “Most Americans get” what’s going on, he says. Nevertheless, “secular progressives have succeeded in putting people of faith on the defensive,” with a prime example of this being the pizzeria in Walkerton, Indiana, which, in a report aired by a local television channel, declared it would refuse to bake pizzas for a gay wedding.
(The shop’s owner added that “We’re not discriminating against anyone. It’s just that’s our belief, and everybody has the right to believe anything.” Her internally inconsistent statement went unchallenged by the reporter.)
O’Reilly informs us that “all hell descended on the store, as secular zealots threatened all kinds of things.” He then flashes a clip of Newt Gingrich denouncing “lynch mobs.” (No “lynch mobs” besieged the pizzeria, which, following its homophobic proclamation, managed to rake in donations of more than $50,000 from supporters. O’Reilly omits mentioning this.) Who’s to blame for the mounting perils Christianity faces in America? Religious leaders, both Catholic and Protestant, for failing to “push back” against the secular onslaught.
It hardly takes a journalistic sleuth to ferret out the simultaneously ludicrous and lamentable false equivalency that O’Reilly has drawn here between the horrific, all-too-real massacres of Christians underway in countries afflicted with terrorism abroad, and the barbs, criticisms, and, yes, insults about religion coming from some vocal atheists, including Maher, in the United States. The death toll from the former stands in the hundreds; from the latter: zero. I’m unaware of a single atheist who, motivated by his or her nonbelief, has called for or committed acts of violence against Christians anywhere, at any time. Obviously, nonbelievers possess no “sacred text” with which they could justify harming anyone, let alone people of faith. (NB to those who will take to the comments section and rant about Stalin and Mao. Murderous dictators both, they ordered their atrocities not on account of their atheism, but to “defend the revolution” and secure their power.)
But facts rarely hinder O’Reilly. To deepen his audience’s (mis)understanding of the (non-existent) war on Christianity, he then turns to Ann Coulter. As one might expect, Coulter blames the liberal media and progressives for “hating on” the Christians.
“It’s Christianity that the Left hates most of all,” she says, “because that is the foundation of our country . . . and all of our freedoms come from that, freedom of association, freedom of speech.” In this, “the most consequential nation on earth,” she says, Christians would prefer to change “the bedpans of Ebola patients in Nigeria rather than stand up to the New York Times and stand up against abortion and fight against these bullies.” The dastardly liberals and their media are trying to “tear down the heart of this country by going directly at the heart of America, which is Christianity.”
Where to start here? Nigeria suffered only a handful of Ebola cases and has been free of the hemorrhagic fever for almost six months now; the worst-hit countries have been to its west. Religion as the source of free speech? The three Abrahamic faiths, with their “revealed” truths against which “blasphemy” (that is, any behavior supposedly disrespectful of God) is forbidden (and punishable by death in the Bible), have historically fought against free speech, the most lethal opponent of their bizarre, improbable doctrines. Few need reminding that the Vatican formalized the suppression of free speech with its infamous Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Prohibited Books), which included the works of the Enlightenment’s key luminaries and many other intellectual giants, and which was abolished only in 1966.
And Christianity as the “foundation of our country?” Coulter, formerly a constitutional lawyer, could knowingly pronounce such a monstrous untruth only to mislead further the already historically illiterate – that is, Fox’s audience, dumbed-down by watching shows such as O’Reilly’s and taking them seriously. That Christian zealots initiated the mass European migration to North America no one disputes. They did not, however, found the country; the secularist Founding Fathers, who mostly regarded religion with deep suspicion, did. Check no further than Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state” and, obviously, the Constitution’s First Amendment (which protects free speech from faith by forbidding Congress from establishing a state religion), as well as the more obscure Article VI, which declares that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” If Christianity really were the “foundation of our country,” by Coulter’s logic the Founding Fathers would have included an amendment making Bible study mandatory for all aspirants to public office.
O’Reilly then asks Coulter how it is that the 80 percent of Americans who consider themselves Christians “are getting thumped, they’re losing . . . . How did that happen?”
For Coulter, the answer lies in pusillanimous Christian leaders (abetted by spineless Republicans). Their cowardice is, she says, “ridiculous,” because “the one thing every Christian should have is courage. The most important thing in your life, eternity, is already taken care of. Go out and fight. You’re afraid of being sneered at by the New York Times?”
The two banter for a couple of minutes more, during which O’Reilly complains about the lack of Catholic clerics willing “to put themselves out to defend the Christian faith” (something Coulter disputes) while “all these pressure groups” (lobbies for gay, reproductive, and abortion rights) are striving to undermine it. Coulter incriminates the media again. “The ad hominem attacks thrown at Christians in this country” are mostly charges of racism and homophobia, she says, before calling on her fellows in faith to “be courageous and fight for the most consequential nation on earth.” Finis.
All in all, rationalists should applaud O’Reilly and Coulter for having the courage to so boldly air their mendacity, mischaracterizations, and lopsided analogies, which are in fact illuminating. Namely, they both argue from a premise so widely accepted that they leave it unstated: that those who believe, without proof, fantastical, far-reaching propositions about the nature of our cosmos and how we should live our lives have nothing to explain, nothing to account for, while those of us who value convictions based on evidence, reasoned solutions, and rules for living deriving from consensus must ceaselessly justify ourselves and genuflect apologetically for voicing disagreement.
Beneath this unstated premise lies another more insidious notion: that there are two kinds of truth – religious and otherwise. That, say, the assertion that God created the earth in six days and rested on the seventh might not be literally true, but it merits respect as “religious truth” (or, as Reza Aslan puts it, “sacred history”), as a metaphor for some ethereal verity, one so transcendental that boneheaded rationalists obsessed with superfluities like evidence cannot grasp it.
This is sophistry of the most contemptible variety. By such unscrupulous subterfuge the faithful (and their apologists) commit treason against reason, betray honest discourse, and hope to render their (preposterous) dogmas immune to disproof and open to limitless interpretation, depending on their needs of the moment. Either an objective proposition (say, that Jesus was the son of God, or that the Prophet Muhammad flew to heaven on a winged horse) is true or it is untrue. It cannot be whatever the one advancing it says it is; much less, true for some, but not for others.
O’Reilly himself clings to this New-Age idea that we all have a right to our personal, customized truths. In his 2006 interview with Richard Dawkins, O’Reilly admits that he’s “not positive that Jesus was God,” but he’s “throwin’ in with Jesus, rather than throwin’ in with you guys [atheists], because you guys can’t tell me how it all got here.” A minute or so later, he announces that he’s “stickin’ with Judeo-Christian philosophy and my religion, Roman Catholicism, because it helps me as a person.”
That doesn’t mean it’s true, replies Dawkins.
“Well, it’s true for me,” says O’Reilly. “See, I believe it.”
“You mean true for you is different from true for anybody else? . . . Something’s either got to be true or not.”
O’Reilly’s “reasoning” would fail to pass muster in a nursery-school yard, yet he presents it shamelessly to an adult audience on national television. He knows most people tend to avoid outright expression of disbelief (and certainly suppress belly laughs) when others begin disclosing their religious beliefs.
Such timidity must stop.
Let me be clear: I’m not denying anyone’s (constitutionally protected) right to profess or practice his or her religion. (Nor am I denying the magnificent literary, artistic, and musical heritage religion has inspired.) What I am contesting is the hushed silence with which many nonbelievers respond to the faith-tainted eructations of the religious, who enjoy undeserved exemptions from ground rules we observe for all other kinds of discourse. If someone were to claim he was Napoleon Bonaparte, we would either assume he was joking, or, if not, dial the insane asylum and request urgent outpatient service. What we would not do is simply nod in assent and move on to another topic. “This is just my religion and I believe in it!” is a frequently stated position, but it offers no valid argument of any kind, and we should give no one a pass on the basis of it.
Why not? Our silence when confronted by religious nonsensicalities (especially in front of children) only helps foster their continuation, and does great damage to our politics. Though atheism is spreading, with a third of all Americans under thirty professing no religious affiliation, eight out of ten do call themselves Christians; what a sizable majority, even a shrinking one, believes has to matter to us all. The very issues Coulter and O’Reilly cite (gay marriage and abortion) would not even be controversial were it not for the malign influence faith has on politics. Examine the intractable problems in our society – and the world as a whole – and you will espy the ghastly gargoyle of religion rearing its misshapen head behind many, if not most, of them. In view of this, speaking out against religion becomes a moral obligation.
That O’Reilly’s faith helps him feel good has no bearing on its truth and certainly cannot stand as an argument in its favor. The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw summed it up memorably: “The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. The happiness of credulity is a cheap and dangerous quality of happiness, and by no means a necessity of life.”
Consolations based on a false religious premise pose their own problem: what happens when they are exposed as unfounded? The believer, having never matured, having never really advanced beyond the childhood realm of wishful thinking, is suddenly rendered defenseless before the challenges -- the terrors, even -- of mortal life.
What really flabbergasts O’Reilly and Coulter is that nonbelievers are no longer keeping mum about the rank stupidity embodied in Christianity. A virgin birth? A rib-cum-woman? A man walking on water? The vicarious redemption of “sin” through a cruel and unusual act of human sacrifice? All these fantasticalities offend thinking, sane individuals. No one should expect us to accept the truth of such fantasticalities or to allow dogma arising from them to determine discourse on how we live, which laws pass, and whom we marry, without fierce resistance.
The one thing both O’Reilly and Coulter do get right is that there is a war going on, but it’s not between hapless Christians and “vicious” atheists. It is between rationalists who seek to live in ways they reason to be best, and the faithful cleaving to fatuous fables and Paleolithic preachments inscribed in ancient books that should be pulped, or at best preserved as exhibits for future students majoring in anthropology, with minors in mental derangement.
O’Reilly and Coulter, we who care about doing all we can to make this life better for humanity will continue to speak up against the unreason you propagate.
The gloves are now off.