The Fox News megastar “No-Spin-meister” Bill O’Reilly spins with abandon, heedless of fact, without decent respect to the opinions of mankind or even Google.
Case in point: on his show’s “Talking Points” segment, a day after Vester Lee Flanagan II (aka Bryce Williams) used his legally-purchased Glock 9mm pistol in Moneta, Virginia to murder a news reporter and a cameraman and to injure their interviewee, O’Reilly huffed and puffed and spewed out a load of hooey, hooey laced with pseudo-Nietzschean jargon that obscured one salient fact about the tragedy: Williams, in a suicide note faxed to ABC News, professed to be acting on orders from God. Yes, Williams listed other motives as well, but he got the Lord’s green light before he killed. O’Reilly never mentioned this.
Much of the "Talking Points" segment (entitled “Killing Innocents”) in which O’Reilly holds forth on the matter deals with the right to bear arms, and the alleged irrelevance of this right to the mass murders that have plagued the United States for at least a decade and a half now. The Second Amendment does not concern this column, though for the record I believe widespread ownership of firearms bears directly upon the extremely high gun-related death toll in the United States. I can do nothing more than decry the chokehold the firearm lobby has on our political system. There is no other developed country on Earth with such a tragic, enduring problem — and no other as heavily armed.
In any case, for O’Reilly, the problem is that “criminals and maniacs” abuse the Second Amendment and commit atrocities. Williams was clearly both a criminal and disturbed — but he was the second, at least in part, for the reason (ignored, as we have just seen, by O’Reilly) that he believed himself to be the recipient of a direct message from a (nonexistent supernatural) Tyrant and Judge Eternal who, he claimed, ruled in favor of murdering innocents.
To begin his exposé about what is driving “criminals and maniacs” down their violent path to perdition, O’Reilly quotes Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, who asked (concerning the Virginia murders), “What has happened to our society that people have become so violent?” O’Reilly answers the question for him: “Rubio is spotlighting a rise in nihilism and a decline in spiritual belief.” In fact, Rubio was doing nothing of the sort: check out his words here.
Readers of this column can guess exactly what O’Reilly is about to do: denounce atheism by stealthily equating it with a philosophical position only tangentially, if at all, related to it, and deploy in this cause stats from the oft-cited 2014 Pew Research Center study showing that non-religious folks now account for 23 percent of Americans, with the number of Christians dropping (between 2007 and 2014) from 78 percent to 71 percent.
“A person practicing nihilism believes in nothing but his or her own desires,” decrees O’Reilly, with no regard for the definition of nihilism. “Those folks have no loyalties and no purpose outside of their own gratification.”
“Nihilism,” O’Reilly goes on to confusedly assert, “is a close cousin to narcissism, where a person believes they’re never wrong and lacks empathy for others.” No, narcissism, a recognized mental disturbance, and, more broadly, a pop-psychology meme, has nothing to do with nihilism, let alone atheism, at least according to the NIH.
As Nihilist Number 1, he adduces John Hinckley, Ronald Reagan’s would-be assassin, as one from a long list of mass murderers on whom O’Reilly professes to have reported (and into whose psyche he purports to have insight). Whether Hinckley was a nihilist or not, O’Reilly makes no mention of his stated motive for trying to kill the president: his desire to impress the actress Jodie Foster.
O’Reilly then informs us that America is, while growing less spiritual, “embracing the culture of me, what I want.” This for him is tantamount to a rise in godlessness, which has led to religious people “in many media precincts” being “openly mocked, considered to be fanatics. That message is seeping in, especially to younger Americans.”
His conclusion, which renders the secular, rationalist mindset something akin to a murderous mens rea: “If you do not believe in anything, anything goes.” In a jarring non sequitur, he then tells us we should ignore pundits calling for gun control, and proposes as a solution “the philosophy of loving your neighbor” — that is, Christianity. One more non sequitur and he’s done: Don’t expect “that a centralized government can prevent barbaric behavior. It can’t.”
In a brief three minutes, O’Reilly has managed tofurther stultify his already largely ignorant, aging audience, giving them to think that attaching a dyslogistic, esoteric (for them) philosophical term to nonbelief and conflating it with psychosis will help them understand both events in the news (murders, in this case) and what many no doubt find puzzling, disturbing, and even threatening — that the Zeitgeist has of late been turning (gloriously) heathen, and the once-automatic respect the faithful could expect when airing their religious nonsensicalities can no longer be counted upon.
The latter point merits consideration here. Arousing much controversy, New Atheists, anti-theists and other outspoken secularists have had to voice their views forcibly at times, principally because we face a lurid plethora of deeply entrenched dogmas backed by powerful institutions and fanatical mobs of adherents. Abroad, the situation is more dire, of course — think ISIS and Boko Haram, or even the Israel-Palestinian conflict, made well-nigh insoluble by its Judeo-Islamic aspect, which happens to interlock neatly with support from loony-bin evangelicals eagerly awaiting the outbreak of World War III and an encore appearance of their (imaginary) master-of-ceremonies superstar, monsieur Jesus H. Christ. In confronting all this crazed, at times lethal, opposition, there is every incentive for rationalists to speak out — and loudly.
A certain amount of vehemence is to be expected, since we are not arguing against reasoned doctrine. The central tenets of the three Abrahamic faiths, which amount to statements about the nature of the world we live in, our place in it and how we are to treat one another, stem from no evidence whatsoever. Toss aside the magic books, the hocus-pocus prayer, the supernatural visions and the unverifiable instances of “salvation,” and you are left with a void. The words of the late Christopher Hitchens come to mind: “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.” Rational individuals are not in the least obligated to take seriously, much less respect, (faith-based) propositions advanced without proof. And we may dismiss with especial vigor the solipsistic, quasi-deluded New-Age “My religion is true for me” dodge — which even O’Reilly has used, and in one of his (deeply self-embarrassing) interviews with Richard Dawkins, no less.
We need to change the way in which our society sees religion. Given that parsing the scribblements found in ancient “holy” books in search of sense is a fruitless, time-wasting endeavor, we should militate for the shuttering of all theology departments and divinity schools, and transfer the study of religion to anthropologists, psychologists and other experts in abnormal behavior and the persistence of discredited, harmful (if often uproariously laughable) old myths. And we should, of course, campaign to eliminate the immensely costly tax exemptions faith-based institutions enjoy. Shysters nattering on about their superstitions deserve no government subsidies.
Back to O’Reilly. The gist of his wrongheaded “Talking Points” memo is that atheists — or, in his twisted verbiage, nihilists — are self-centered, dangerous and even potentially murderous, because, for them, “anything goes.” This is a blundering, volitional misrepresentation of reality. It goes without saying that the terrorists of, for instance, Al Qaida and Boko Haram very much do not believe that “anything goes,” are among the most devout believers around, and, of course, are most willing to kill. As far as the United States goes, it is high religiosity itself that correlates with bad crime rates, deadbeat tax payers, poverty, rampant teen pregnancy, low education, a dearth of life opportunities, early death, and so on. Faith is, in short, part and parcel of a congeries of nasty ills every society should strive to extirpate.
How exactly should a secular, rationalist individual counter O’Reilly and the sort of gibberish about “nihilism” he presented in his “Talking Points” memo? Well, try this. Morality has arisen as evolutionarily propitious: that is, wherever there are humans, there are prohibitions against murder, rape, theft and so on. We would not have survived our plodding progression from African savannah to everywhere else, including the moon, without such prohibitions, which exist in all societies, Christian or not, and including those far older than our own. (Think India and China.) Now that we have developed enough to see through the sham religious norms we inherited from preceding generations, we can create our own — and we are doing so.
There is, of course, no afterlife to kill or die for, no other world in which we either suffer abominable punishments for our “sins,” or romp with virgins, or luxuriate in the presence of the godhead, or, unfortunately (or fortunately, as the case may be) see our departed relatives. This means we have every incentive to treat one another well and justly here and now, hear one another out here and now, and reach decisions based on consensus and mutual respect, not on stale dogma and outmoded old commandments.
No future reckoning awaits us. Pace Bill O’Reilly and the votaries of the three Abrahamic creeds, it’s all here and now.
We need, in sum, to make the best of this world. We have no other.