I’ve decided that, at least in the United States, the religiously devout really do have the interests of rationalist nonbelievers at heart, at least as far as providing us with (a sick, unseemly sort of) entertainment goes. They strive ceaselessly and tirelessly, without remiss, on holidays, weekends, and during the work week, to provide us with new episodes of the tragicomic—though mostly tragic—reality-show farce that is religion, and at their own expense. We might just as well call them the Falstaffs of Faith.
In the Roman Catholic cult, aging, supposedly celibate yet surely (concupiscently) turgid priests in frocks and beanies hide behind screens in confessionals and eagerly (probably pantingly) parse accounts of the sexual misdeeds of their flock members, and have the nerve to impose “penance” on them, even as dioceses continue to declare bankruptcy to get out of making payouts to their own sexual abuse victims. In the United States alone, by 2012, the Catholic Church’s victims numbered as many as 100,000, and payouts to them had amounted to as much as $2.2 billion.
Presiding over an obscenely wealthy institution with a documented history of mafia-linked bank scandals and Holocaust profiteering, the Vatican’s supreme cult master styles himself after, and even adopts the name of, a long-dead (earnest and wonderful, even if believing) penurious Italian from Assisi, and wins plaudits from the public for creating a Vatican “tribunal” at which to try bishops accused of sheltering child-raping priests. (We are supposed to consider this “progress,” as if we needed priests at all.) Last year, the Vatican admitted to defrocking 848 priests and sanctioning 2,572, in the more than 3,400 cases of child abuse it has dealt with since 2004.
No pangs of conscience played a role in the Vatican’s divulgation of such appalling figures. The admission came under pressure, as a United Nations committee overseeing the observance of the U.N. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment grilled the Holy See’s ambassador in Geneva, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi. Courts may well decide that the sexual abuse of children constitutes torture, which could lead to sweeping arrests depopulating the ranks of the Catholic clergy, with shackled priests making perp walks the world over. One hopes a Nuremberg-style tribunal can be set up for them – with Nuremberg-style punishments.
The Catholic Church, in any case, and despite the Pope’s “reform,” remains a citadel of obscurantism, sexism, and social regress, pursuing, as it always has, misogynistic policies regarding reproductive rights, blatantly discriminating against women by refusing to ordain them, and inculcating a junk ideology that instills guilt and shame about sex. (Not that anyone, male or female, should want to be a priest.) Real progress would involve the Catholic Church apologizing to humanity, with the Vatican simultaneously renouncing the statehood granted it by Mussolini’s Fascist government, abolishing itself, and donating its assets to all those whose lives the Church’s sex-crazed priests and rotten doctrines have destroyed. Any non-religious organization with such a lengthy record of employing, aiding, abetting, and sheltering veritable legions of child molesters would have been disbanded as a criminal enterprise long ago.
Feel outraged? Tell the Pope himself during his September junket to Philadelphia, to attend, of all things, something called the World Meeting of Families. Given the long child-rape record Catholic priests have racked up, you might think the last place at which their boss would be welcome would be a gathering of families. But the Catholic Church sponsors this event.
In short, don’t be fooled by the Pope’s “Franciscan” façade. And keep your children away from his priests.
The Pope is, for now, far away, but here in the United States, down in sweet home Alabama, it emerged last week that evangelical Falstaffs of Faith have cynically decided to meld worship of their (probably entirely fictitious) superhero Jesus with instructing civilians in the use of lethal weaponry. That’s right, forget all the gibber jabber about turning the other cheek (Matthew 5:39) and eschewing the sword so as not to perish by it (Matthew 26:52-54). The parishioners of the Rocky Mount United Methodist Church in the hamlet of Jemison appear to be gearing up for Armageddon, the battle of which, the Christian cult generally preaches, will involve Christ kicking the Anti-Christ’s ass and casting Beelzebub into a bottomless pit for a thousand years. (Yes, adults in modern America take this comic-book claptrap dead seriously and are preparing for it.)
However, WIAT NEWS 42, the television news show that reported the story, stressed a more mundane motive -- increasing the flock. “Parishoners [sic!] Packing Heat” the anchors entitle their segment. The church, they say, found itself in possession of a gully to its rear. Pastor Phillip Guin and assembled flock members (the “parishoners” in question) fretted about what to do with it. Leave it as a peaceful, if overgrown, preserve of verdant tranquility? No, of course not. When the pastor and his sheep started “brainstorming about what to do with the area,” writes Al Ratcliffe for WIAT.com, “the idea of a gun range came up.”
Why? This doesn’t sound like your grandmother’s church. Wait, grandma might well be among the budding sharpshooters!
“We had quite a number of church members, some elderly ladies, for example,” says Guin, “and some not so elderly women that had purchased guns, but didn’t know how to use them.” Ratcliffe does not explore why this should be a church’s business, but one can assume that God and guns naturally go together down there. They certainly do for Guin, who, moreover, hopes to turn firing lead through bull’s eyes into something akin to an encounter with the godhead; he’s establishing a ministry on his newly fashioned target range.
“This is an opportunity for us to reach out in the name of Jesus Christ in a setting that is completely unique,” Guin tells us. “Even odd by some people’s standards. But who’s to say that church can’t happen right here.” The Jemison Police Department now trains on the site and offers gun safety courses there. This is, by my book, tantamount to government forces of law and order endorsing a religion -- in violation of the Establishment Clause. But let’s leave that issue for another day.
The Rocky Mount United Methodist Church is not alone in mixing faith and firepower. In Paducah, Kentucky, the Lone Oak Baptist Church decided last year to throw a shindig and give away “a variety of 25 donated handguns, long guns, and shotguns through a random drawing” in order to “help men understand the Gospel message is extremely relevant to their lives today.” At least these particular arms-dealing Falstaffs of Faith were responsible about it: winners had to pass background checks to actually get their hands on the rods they had won. At Lone Oak, incidentally, only the guns were free. Bibles they sold.
(Not all evangelicals are on board when it comes to mixing God and guns. “Jesus would puke,” said Reverend Nancy Jo Kemper, the leader of the New Union Christian Church in Lexington. Amen to that, except, again, there’s no reason to believe Jesus even existed.)
Where there is faith in the Lord, there is not only sordid sexual abuse of little children, and not only the brandishing of lethal weaponry, of course. There is also rampant, seething lust after lucre, an obsession with amassing piles of (tax-exempt) money by means of the vilest sort of chicanery imaginable, and at the expense of an apparently limitless supply of gullible believers. One would think journalists would cover the pathetically transparent, ongoing (and evangelical, as usual) scams assiduously and often. But no. Surely because it remains a sensitive topic for so many, religion and those wielding it to defraud get, if not a pass, then at least less media attention than they deserve.
Comedians, and especially John Oliver, the host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” feel differently, as a brief recap in Salon showed last week. Herein I’ll be more detailed.
Oliver spent 20 glorious minutes of air time raking evangelical Christianity’s preeminent charlatans over the coals. He did not have to try hard to make his audience laugh. He showed televangelist Robert Tilton babbling in tongues about midgets and commanding lupus to “bow to the name of Jesus;” an Atlanta minister named (no joke) Creflo Dollar on stage beseeching God (actually, his exploitable, faith-stultified viewers) for a $65-million dollar jet (and getting it); the insufferably smug Pastor Mike Murdoch boasting about having bought not one, but two, Cesna Citation jets; and the preacher Kenneth Copeland’s supposed “preaching machine” private jet that flew him to some pretty un-preacherly endeavors.
The shared doctrinal ruse of these hucksters – the “prosperity” or “seed gospel” (sample exposition here), by which the faith-deranged should expect their make-believe Celestial Treasurer to compensate them proportionate to the donations they make to this or that preacher here on earth.
Now if you needed evidence that religion is all about the here and now, all about cunning pulpiteers duping the trusting masses to get rich (and get off, as the Catholic Church’s longstanding lechery shows), the ongoing televangelist swindle-charade (and Catholic Church iniquities) provide it.
In explaining how IRS regulations allow tax exemptions for just about anything related to religious institutions (even private homes, including the $6.3 million palace Pastor Copeland inhabits as his personal “parsonage,” and, of course, all those private jets), Oliver comes to the crux of his dead-serious comedic reportage: the sickeningly lax manner in which said exemptions are worded, and the even more vomit-inducing ways in which they may be exploited. Basically, as Oliver demonstrates, anyone can found a religion on any nonsensical pretext whatsoever, as long as belief in it is “truly and sincerely held” – an unverifiable criterion, and one that, puzzlingly (or not puzzlingly, given our generalized squeamishness about things religious) the IRS does not strictly enforce any more often than it audits the “faith” institutions themselves (once last year, twice in 2013, according to Oliver).
The result, says The Washington Post: More than $82.5 billion a year lost to federal coffers – this, in a time of fiscal austerity, budget cuts, and financial hardship for so many. Add to the $82.5 billion all the money spent on religious paraphernalia, from prayer books to prayer rugs to creationist magazines to trash-talking faith networks to Jesus coffee mugs and Christian apparel and so on, and you have a tsunami of misdirected funds that could feed many of America’s poor and heal many of its sick. In a country that constantly proclaims itself humanity’s last and best hope, the mere presence of multitudes so incapable of rational thought that they ransack their own bank accounts to support the faith industry disproves any assertion of American exceptionalism.
We should, of course, be outraged. More specifically, though, we should campaign to revoke all religious tax exemptions. Our legal argument: Such exemptions amount to costly government subsidies for religion (in violation, as mentioned above, of the Establishment Clause), as well as, of course, a windfall for faith shysters and their self-aggrandizing schemes.
We should also urge all the current presidential candidates – in particular, practicing evangelicals such as Mike Huckabee, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Dr. Ben Carson, and also the Catholic Jeb Bush, and even the committed Methodist Hillary Clinton (who has boasted of chowing down with the Lord) – to cease and desist from professing their faith on the campaign trail. By doing so, they de facto endorse the toxic misconception that believing far-reaching propositions about reality on no evidence constitutes not a vice, but a virtue.
Moving away from Oliver’s masterly, mordant (as well as sadly hilarious) reportage, we need to recall the stakes. Faith-deranged politicians and action groups are working hard to curtail women’s reproductive rights, discriminate against gays through religious freedom restoration acts, ruin the education of our young by promoting Genesis bunk as an alternative to the fact of evolution by natural selection, and stymie the passage of right-to-die bills (and thereby, incidentally, blocking attempts by rationalists exasperated to the point of fatal illness to exit with dignity the dumbed-down inferno of backwardness and idiocy the religious are trying to turn America into). Anthropogenic global warming poses increasing threats to our health and even national security, and, credible scientists report, may well lead to the extinction of the human race – and not in some distant future. Abroad, vicious sectarian warfare is causing chaos in ever greater parts of the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia.
Now, facing such unprecedented jeopardy, even peril, do we really want to elect men and women to high office who believe in superstitious gobbledygook sodden with the putrid notion that our destruction on some Lord-supervised “Day of Judgment” will be a wonder to behold, and should even be welcomed as “salvation?” Are we really going to vote for, once again, those who pander to the deluded acolytes of modern-day sorcerers and witch doctors, or for those who were themselves such sorcerers and witch doctors? (Think Huckabee and even Scott Walker, who preached during his teens.) Or would we prefer those who can think rationally, without recourse to magic books and abracadabra rituals?
Such are the questions the tragicomic farce of religion presents us with. We know the answers. We need to act on the strength of our convictions, which must exceed in firmness the determination of the faith-deranged to impose their will on us.
This time, if we fail, we have everything to lose.