Amidst the debris of the Hobby Lobby ruling, the Atlanta Banana published a satirical news report: Little Caesar’s Pizza had been granted the religious freedom to feed Christian employees to lions.
The trope of Christians getting fed to lions may have been made up by early Christians themselves, but given its long history in literature and art, the Little Caesar story was almost inevitable. Faced with a barrage of conscience claims, frustrated secularists are wondering whether there’s any limit to the privileges some people will claim in the name of “religious freedom” or any limit to the exemptions and entitlements they will be granted by co-religionists in positions of power.
Turning frustration into humor is a time honored tradition, but serious Bible believers are unlikely to find the Little Caesar’s story funny. The notion of martyrdom as an apogee of faith is as old as the Catholic Church; and a new political thriller targeted at Christian Conservatives, Persecuted, shows that the theme hasn’t lost its appeal. To quote Christian History for Everyman, “Stories of Christian martyrs are the best stories there are. At youth camp or around a campfire at night, there is nothing more inspiring.”
Christians may be a super majority in the U.S. They may control the U.S. Congress and, as we all were reminded recently, the Supreme Court. But that hasn’t stopped some Bible believers from preparing their children for martyrdom. Web resources abound for church youth leaders who want to make sure their young charges are ready for the lions. Titles include, “Expect to be Persecuted” “Persecution Equals Reward” and “Adventure Game—Persecution of Christians and Paul of Tarsus.” According to Pew research evangelical Christians think they are discriminate against more than atheists, Hispanics, Muslims, Blacks, or Jews. Just wow.
Stuff Fundies Like is a blog by and for people coming out of the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist tradition. Recently one former Baptist told how his high school youth group had been divided into two groups, assigned to play the roles of persecutors and martyrs. In 2012 a youth pastor in Pennsylvania made international news by staging the kidnapping of his young charges to help prepare them for the horrors to come.
If one wanted to help bring on Armageddon by fostering mass sectarian paranoia—or, alternately, if one simply wanted to feed Millennial derision for Christian persecution complex,—this kind of “education” might well be the best approach possible. But for Christians who would honestly prefer less hostility toward their faith, I have a better idea: Don’t be evil. And don’t let your co-religionists be evil either.
In the book of Matthew, Jesus gives his disciples a lot of contradictory advice. Modern day followers pick and choose, but one piece that often gets ignored is this: Be harmless as doves. This advice is not only profoundly moral; it is profoundly self-protective. Far fewer people would be entertaining themselves with fantasies about lions if more Christians took this little nugget seriously. A huge part of the antagonism that even moderate, inclusive Christians face from outsiders is due to the fact that too many devout believers claim a righteous mandate to say and do things that are truly horrible.
Let me be clear:
Opposing protections and rights for children is evil. Thanks to the influence of biblical Christianity, the U.S. stands alone with Somalia in failing to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Why? Because the Bible instructs parents to hit their children, among other things. Laws that give rights to children go head to head with biblical texts which say in no uncertain terms that children are the property of their fathers, to be punished or even killed in accordance with the father’s religious beliefs and other priorities.
When a Muslim father in Tunisia recently burned his 13 year old daughter to death for walking home with a male classmate, Christians were rightfully appalled. What many fail to acknowledge is that their insistence on elevating religion above universal ethical principles, human rights, and secular laws regularly costs children their lives, not just children with Muslim parents governed by Muslim theocracies, but also children with Christian parents in towns across America.
Denying young people accurate information about their bodies is evil. The U.S. government just spent a decade and a billion dollars on failed abstinence-only education programs concocted by Bible believers who live in some delusional world where prohibition works and virginity is next to godliness. Thanks to their influence, straight-faced educators tell teens that a girl who has had sex is a licked lollipop. Instead of medically accurate information and thoughtful conversation about intimacy and childbearing, teens get promise rings and slut shame.
The result? Here in the U.S., more than one in four girls gets pregnant before she turns 20, often with heartbreaking multigenerational consequences for women, children and whole communities. More than half of girls who give birth during high school drop out, permanently. Only two percent ever graduate college. Most of their babies are financed by Medicaid and years later are still on the dole, struggling with an impoverished subsistence paid for by community members who are themselves struggling to stay in the middle class.
Demeaning and subjugating women is evil. When it comes to dignity and equality for women, instead of acting as moral torchbearers, Bible believers have been at the back of the pack for generations, along with conservative factions from other Abrahamic traditions ranging from Islam to Mormonism. The American Quiverfull movement, “complementarianism,” the expulsion of Southern Baptist women who were making inroads into the clergy, the Mormon Patriarchy’s threats to excommunicate women who seek equality, the Vatican’s decision to crush nuns who thought poverty was a bigger problem than abortion . . . Need I say more?
Obstructing humanity’s transition to more thoughtful, intentional childbearing is evil. “If a woman dies in [child]bearing, let her die; she is there to do it.” So spoke Martin Luther. But beyond the horrors of women dying after days of labor or bleeding out after unwanted childbirth, lies the incontrovertible evidence that children, families and whole communities do better when parents can plan their families. As one medical student put it, “The failure of any sect to support the benefits to humanity that could be obtained through the use of contraceptive technology is blasphemy.”
If evidence-based compassion—the intersection of truth and love—was at the top of Christian priorities, hunger and destitution would be vastly diminished because millions of mothers would be able to plan and prepare for their babies. But for two generations, Christian patriarchs have been fighting against public health advocates every step of the way. In June alone, Christians in the U.S. congress voted to slash family planning aid by 25 percent, and the five Catholic men on the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the “religious freedom” of corporations is more important than the right of working women to care for their health and their families.
Undermining science is evil. Science has been called what we know about how not to fool ourselves. The discovery of empiricism and falsification—a method of inquiry that forces scholars to ask the questions that could show them wrong—is what has differentiated modernity from the Middle Ages. It’s the reason most of our children don’t die before hitting the age of five. It’s the reason broken legs heal straight, sky scrapers don’t collapse, and our houses are warm in the winter. It is what alerted us to the fact that our carbon consumption has become an existential threat.
But the scientific method has also become an existential threat to Bible belief. We know now that the Genesis creation story is myth, neurotransmitters rather than demons cause mental illness, spotted shepherd rods don’t lead to spotted goats and cattle, mandrake roots and dove blood don’t improve female fertility or cure skin diseases, and the cognitive structures of the human mind predispose us to certain kinds of religious belief.
It may boggle moral credibility that believers intent on propping up the Bible would sacrifice humanity’s best hope of beating the enormous threats we face, threats like resource depletion, food and water shortages, climate change, and rapidly evolving superbugs. But if there’s any overarching theme to Christian history it is this: the end justifies the means.
Promoting holy war is evil. What first flipped my bit, what transformed me from an agnostic mom with mud on my knees, a trowel in my hand, and a grubby earthworm-eating toddler at my side into an outspoken full-time antagonist of Bible worship was a conversation with my Evangelical relatives about the Iraq war. From the vantage of my relatives and my childhood church “family,” George Bush needed no diplomatic or cultural expertise; he was Born Again. He didn’t need to seek input from his earthly father about the invasion, because he asked his Heavenly Father. Besides, Jesus is coming soon and war in the Middle East is predicted in the Bible. That makes it not only inevitable, but—in a manner of speaking—desirable.
Evangelical Christians have spent tens of millions of dollars funding the “return” of Jews to Israel and settlements in the West Bank “as it is written in the scripture”—with the perverse expectation that their presence will one day cause blood to flow in the streets as high as a horse’s bridle.
Abusing and threatening queers is evil. The Bible’s clobber verses may be open to interpretation, but the fact that those verses have caused centuries of suffering is not. For much of American history, the common term for queer was the biblical “sodomite,” implying that gays are so offensive to God that they pose a danger to society as a whole. Thanks to Christian missionaries, African and Latin American queers also have now lived for centuries now under the threat of violent death. As progressive Anglican Gay Clark Jennings observes, “There is no getting around the Bible when searching for the origins of the homophobia that is rampant in many African cultures. What’s more, Europeans and North Americans bear much of the historical responsibility for this sad state of affairs.”
It would be bad enough if we were simply talking about history. But homophobic American Christians, thwarted at home, have turned to inciting oppression in Uganda and Nigeria where their hatred still finds fertile ground.
Destroying Earth’s web of life and impoverishing future generations is evil. The book of Genesis may say that only man is made in the image of God, that God gave man dominion over everything that grows or walks the earth. The book of Matthew may say that the return of Jesus is imminent and that his disciples shouldn’t worry about tomorrow, which will take care of itself. The book of Revelation may teach that this world is just a prelude to streets of gold.
But some of us think the lives and loves of other species have moral weight of their own. And some of us think that the intricate web that gave us birth is both precious and precarious, and that the wellbeing of future generations matters. And we think those verses in Genesis and Matthew and Revelation reveal more about the hubris and flawed humanity of the Bible writers (and of Bible believers) than they do about divinity.
Sucking vulnerable people into your poorly researched worldview is evil. It’s one thing to latch onto the supernatural worldview you were raised in or the one that first triggered for you some radically cool temporal lobe micro-seizure or similar altered state. But then failing to do your homework before using your position of adult American privilege to foist your religion on kindergarteners, or families who live in desperate poverty, or people who just got hit by a natural disaster—in other words people who trust you because you are older or richer or more powerful or have more access to the very information that you have failed to use—now we’re talking about a violation of ethics on scale with selling junk bonds to Alzheimer’s patients.
Just because something is legal doesn’t make it right.
Some reader is bound to say that without God anything goes and so as a nontheist I have no basis for calling anything evil. A short snarky retort has been making its way around the internet: If you can’t tell right from wrong without appealing to an authority or a sacred text, what you lack is not religion but compassion. The long answer, meaning the evidence showing we really can recognize evil and good without gods, is available in neuroscience, sociology, developmental psychology, and in the lives of individual atheists including the Dalai Lama.
I realize that many Christians are not Bible believers, but rather people who glean through the Christian tradition to claim what seems timeless and wise. I also realize that most Bible believers aren’t trying to do harm—in fact the opposite. I know because I’ve been there. But, when you treat the words of our Iron Age ancestors as if they flowed straight from the mouth of God, you end up putting your life energy, whether you see it that way or not, into bringing back the Iron Age.
The Iron Age was a time of incredible brutality—tribalism, warfare, destitution, disease, murder, misogyny, sexual slavery and superstition of biblical proportions. Most of us would rather not go back, thank you very much. Christians who want a better future are welcome to join in the inquiry and teamwork it will take to get there, and many do. For the rest of you: please forgive the fact that your Iron Age fantasies trigger satire prone secularists to experience wry Iron Age fantasies of our own.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Subscribe to her articles at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com.