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Catholic Bishop Slams “Fake Shepherds” Who Close Church Because of COVID-19 | Val Wilde | Friendly Atheist

Plenty of digital space has been devoted to right-wing criticisms of the COVID-19 response, ranging from pedestrian concerns about proportionality to wild conspiracy theories invoking the Book of Revelation.

But when it comes to claims of anti-Christian persecution, it’s hard to beat Bishop Athanasius Schneider for sheer imagination.

The Kazakhstani auxiliary bishop has appeared more than once on infamous Catholic news outlet LifeSite News since the pandemic began, sharing his various opinions on what the COVID crisis means, why it’s happening, and how it should be handled within the Church.

Like many other religious leaders, he doesn’t think quarantine orders should apply to him and his sect:

The bishops and the bishops’ conferences — and even the Holy See — should insist on the governments to give to the churches at least the same rights… as they give to the stores where people can buy food. If the government denies the church the same rights as they give to a store, then this is discrimination of the religion.

It’s not clear whether Schneider is being disingenuous on purpose, or if he genuinely believes that a religious gathering is as necessary for human survival as food.

But he’s taken it a step further and made it personal: In a talk before last week’s virtual Rome Life Forum, he came right out and called his fellow bishops “fake shepherds” if they decided to close their churches in accordance with social-distancing guidelines and regulations:

The unbelievable fact was that in the midst of this worldwide ban of the public Holy Mass, many bishops even before the government banned public worship issued decrees by which they not only forbade the public celebration of Holy Mass, but of any other sacrament as well.

Bishops who not only did not care but directly prohibited their faithful access to the sacraments, especially to the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist and the sacrament of Penance, behaved themselves as fake shepherds, who seek their own advantage.

It’s not clear what advantage he thinks these “fake shepherds” stood to gain by closing down their churches, unless it’s the advantage of not spreading a deadly disease throughout the diocese — a trivial concern, Schneider seems to indicate.

And if that’s not theatrical enough for your tastes, he went back through two millennia of Christian history to invoke the era of early Christian persecution in Rome, when the faithful are said to have celebrated worship rites in the catacombs to avoid detection:

In many countries, and especially in predominantly Catholic countries, this prohibition [the COVID lockdown] was enforced in such a systematic and brutal way, that it seemed as though the ruthless historical persecutions of the Church were brought back. An atmosphere of the catacombs was created with priests celebrating Holy Mass in secrecy with a group of the faithful.

(It’s worth mentioning that the catacombs probably weren’t used that way in early Christianity, and some historians question how much of the early Christian persecution narrative is little more than myth.)

To instruct his brother bishops on how they should be responding to the threat of COVID-19, Schneider looks back to an earlier plague, that of sixteenth-century Italy:

In the time of the plague, which had an incomparably higher mortality rate as the current epidemic of COVID-19, St. Charles Borromeo increased the number of the public celebrations of Holy Mass. Even though he closed the churches for a while, he at the same time ordered that there should be Masses celebrated in many public and open places, such as squares, crossroads, street corners. He obliged the priests to visit the sick and the dying to administer them the sacraments of Penance and of Extreme Unction. He ordered public processions to be held, in which people walked in due distance, to make reparation for the sins and invoke Divine Mercy.

St. Charles Borromeo did not forget the care for the body of the infected people, but at the same time his primary concern was the spiritual help of the sacraments, with which the sick had to be strengthened.

It’s incredible to think that Schneider believes modern churches should model their coronavirus response plans on the actions of a historical figure who had no idea how to stop people from contracting the plague or dying from it.

The bishop’s flair for the dramatic would be admirable if it weren’t so dangerous.

All that is to say nothing of why Schneider believes coronavirus has stricken the world in the first place. In a conversation with LifeSite editor John-Henry Westin, Schneider shared his opinion that the virus is a “divine appeal” calling on the faithful to repent the sins of the Church, “a punishment of a loving Father” designed to bring his children closer to him.

If Schneider sees this as the act of a loving parent, I’m suddenly extremely grateful for priestly celibacy.

When Schneider speaks of the Church’s recent sins, surely he’s talking about some very serious misconduct, right? The sexual abuse of children, perhaps? Or the cruelty inflicted on LGBTQ people through conversion therapy and familial rejection? Well, not exactly.

Westin paraphrased Schneider’s take like this:

[Repentance is needed] because of the mistreatment of Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist, the reception of Holy Communion in the hand, which leads to the trampling of Jesus in the various particles left over in people’s hands and therefore brushed onto the floor.

In more than two thousand years of church history, this is surely the worst thing the Catholic Church has ever done.

Consequently, Schneider has some recommendations for how Pope Francis might play his part in ending COVID-19 and ensuring no such plague descends on humanity again:

One could suggest that the Pope, together with cardinals and bishops, carry out a public act of reparation in Rome for the sins against the Holy Eucharist, and for the sin of the acts of religious veneration to the Pachamama statues.

Once the current tribulation has ended, the Pope should issue concrete liturgical norms, in which he invites the entire Church to turn again towards the Lord in the manner of celebration, i.e. celebrant and faithful turned in the same direction during the Eucharistic prayer. The Pope should also forbid the practice of Communion in the hand, for the Church cannot continue unpunished to treat the Holy of Holies in the little sacred Host in such a minimalistic and unsafe manner.

That ought to help a great deal. Thanks bunches, Athanasius.

(Screenshot via YouTube)

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How to Be an Atheist

deep water

If you are currently a religious believer who is curious about how you might become an atheist, this brief post is for you. I think it will help to begin by making sure you understand what atheism is so that we don’t run the risk of talking about different things without realizing we are doing so. It will be helpful to realize that at least some of what you have been told about atheism is likely false. If you are a Christian, this guide may help.

Now that we are on the same page about the meaning of atheism, it is time to acknowledge that there are probably almost as many different paths to atheism as there are atheists. Those of us who are atheists became atheists in a variety of ways. The good news is that there is no one right way to get there; the bad news is that this makes it challenging to offer guidance that will be widely applicable. We’ll circle back to that in a moment because something just occurred to me that we better consider first: Might you already be an atheist?

We’ll assume that you are not currently an atheist. That’s okay. Despite what you may have been told, you can be an atheist. Perhaps the easiest place to start is to identify some gods in which you do not believe. You’ve probably heard of at least a couple in which you don’t believe. Maybe some are ancient Greek or Roman gods. Or perhaps some are various Hindu gods you might have heard of at some point. You might consider them “false gods,” but the point isn’t that you don’t worship them; the point is that you don’t think they are real. That’s a lot like what being an atheist is like. The only difference is that you might believe in one or more gods while we don’t believe in any gods.

Consider the fact that humans have worshiped thousands of gods throughout our brief history. Of these thousands of gods, you might believe in one, and that would mean you don’t believe in thousands. We atheists are just like that except we include your god in the list of thousands both of us don’t believe in. Make sense?

I know, I know. You’re thinking your god is somehow different from all of those other gods, but it isn’t. Or maybe you are thinking that you couldn’t possibly go on without your god-belief. I remember having that same fear. Once again, focus on those thousands of gods in which neither of us believe. You don’t have any difficulty going without them, do you? Yours isn’t any more real than they are. The reason you fear going without it is that you’ve probably never tried. Your god is familiar and might be all you’ve ever known. That’s doesn’t mean you can’t go without it, and it certainly doesn’t mean you’d be a bad person for trying.

An atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in gods. Whether you knew it or not, you are almost an atheist because you believe in a tiny subset of the gods in which humans have believed. With respect to all the other gods, you are already an atheist. If you were to try life without your god(s), you just might find you had as little need for them as you do for all the others you’ve disregarded. That’s atheism.

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Korean Cops Raid COVID-Spreading Church; Sect’s Leaders Face Homicide Charges | Terry Firma | Friendly Atheist

More evidence of the superior morality that religion bestows on its followers comes to us from South Korea:

Prosecutors raided facilities of Shincheonji, a minor religious sect, on Friday as part of their ongoing probe into allegations that the group hindered state efforts to contain the new coronavirus in the early stages of the pandemic.

Some 100 investigators took part in the raids into the secretive group’s branches nationwide, to seize materials in connection with the charges brought against the group’s founder, Lee Man-hee. …

The raid marks the prosecution’s first forcible investigation into the group since February when a group of people who claimed to be victims of the religious group filed a complaint against the 89-year-old Lee for embezzlement, dereliction of duty and violation of infectious disease prevention laws.

Shincheonji’s central theology is that Lee is the second coming of Jesus Christ. He has made his followers believe that the Bible consists chiefly of mysterious metaphors that only he can decipher.

Lee Man-hee

That particular derangement is perhaps harmless, but we can’t say the same for the sect’s behavior after the initial cases of COVID-19 came to light.

As the disease spread among Shincheonji’s members and thousands of others, the group’s founder and leaders refused to get tested, citing their religious beliefs to privacy, resulted in a national outcry against the group. Shincheonji members also resisted government attempts at tracking the spread of pandemic and implementation of social distancing rules.

The New York Times interviewed former members who divulged that

Worshipers sit packed tightly on the floor and attend even when sick. … “We were taught not to be afraid of illness,” said Lee Ho-yeon, who left the church in 2015. A church leader boasted to followers on Feb. 9 that although hundreds of people had died in Wuhan, China, where the outbreak began, no Shincheonji worshipers there became sick.

God will protect us! We are invincible!

The Korea Herald reports that the Shincheonji sect caused almost half the country’s 11,000-plus known coronavirus cases, but an archived page from the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention claims the correct percentage is 60.

Lee Man-hee, who has apologized on TV for “unintentionally” spreading the virus, was recently charged with homicide and inflicting injury, as were other leaders of the 240,000-strong sect.

If only such a thing were possible in the United States.


P.S.: Religious grifters and self-styled saviors often find surprising success in Korea, says the Times.

As the country has suffered war and deprivation in the past century, 120 self-styled messiahs promising a new world of peace have emerged, 70 commanding sizable followings. … Some ended up in jail on fraud or rape charges or lived in disgrace after the rapture they had promised never came. But their apostles split and spread, rebranding themselves into new sects.

Much like a mutating virus, when you think about it.

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I Was a Teenage Atheist

Gypsophila flowers

When I let my parents know that I no longer believed in gods, they weren’t particularly happy. They dealt with this news in different ways, and it seemed to be much less of a concern for my father. His initial approach seemed to be one of hoping it would go away if he ignored it. While my atheism still hasn’t gone away, I think this was a smart decision on his part because I had gone through plenty of fleeting phases that did go away. Thus, he had plenty of recent experience with that sort of thing. My mother took it much harder and couldn’t ignore it because she was worried about my “soul.” In reality, I have long suspected that she was at least as worried about how my atheism would be perceived by others and how that might reflect poorly on her.

Thinking back on this turbulent time, there was one concern my parents shared and my mother was willing to express to which I was thoroughly unwilling to listen. And as it turns out, she was right to be concerned. You see, they knew far more than I did about how atheists were regarded in society. One of the more difficult conversations I can recall was when my mother pleaded with me that atheism was going to doom me to a life of isolation and loneliness because others would never accept it. They’d never accept me if I was an atheist. I was furious at the time because I interpreted her as speaking for herself, saying that she would never accept it and might decide that she wanted nothing to do with me. That wasn’t what she was saying, but it was all I could hear.

What my mother was trying to tell me was that many, perhaps even most, people I would come in contact with despised atheists. They would likely despise me for being one. As it turns out, she was mostly right about this. The problem was, and still is, that I can no more will myself to believe in gods than I could will myself to forget how to read my native language. Belief just doesn’t work like that. At least, it never has for me. Warning me about the social consequences of atheism didn’t give me much to work with. If she was right, I was screwed. There was little I was going to be able to do.

It didn’t take me long to realize that she had been more correct than I had wanted to admit. The lesson I took away was a bit different from the one she had in mind, though. Since resuming god-belief was out of my control, I was stuck being an atheist no matter what. The one thing I could do was conceal it from others to minimize the social consequences. This would come at a price, as I set about constructing a facade to prevent others from discovering who I really was. Living inauthentically and trusting no one is a shitty existence. It took a psychological toll from which I am still trying to recover. But it did give me at least some ability to prevent the worst forms of anti-atheist bigotry and discrimination for as long as I could stand to do it.

I find myself thinking about my mother today and having a hard time acknowledging that she was right about something I really didn’t want her to be right about (and still don’t). I also find myself feeling mad that anti-atheist bigotry is still a thing and that I am hardly alone in having experienced it. In many ways, the “it gets better” thing we so desperately want to tell young atheists today hasn’t yet materialized. I don’t know about you, but this former atheist teenager is growing impatient.

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Trump Pushes for Church Reopenings on Same Day CDC Confirms Church Events Spread COVID-19

Washington, D.C.—Today, the religious equality watchdog American Atheists denounced President Trump’s plan to force the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to issue guidance allowing places of worship to reopen. American Atheists also condemned Trump’s threat to “override” governors if churches are prevented from opening “this weekend.”

“President Trump lacks the constitutional authority to bend governors to his will. He is a president, not a king,” said Alison Gill, Vice President for Legal and Government at American Atheists. “Medical science, not cheap political point scoring or culture war rhetoric, is what should be guiding decisions about when to allow large gatherings.”

Ironically, the CDC published a report today connecting high transmission rates of the virus to church events, specifically for a rural Arkansas church. The CDC also detailed the ability of churchgoers to transmit the virus to the broader community.

“Courts that have ruled on the substance of this issue have been clear. Houses of worship are not entitled to special exemptions from public health orders,” said Gill.

“It’s clear that the president is less concerned about the health and safety of churchgoers than he is about signalling special status for his religious backers,” said Nick Fish, president of American Atheists. “No one is singling out churches, and no one is celebrating the disruptions to all Americans’ day-to-day lives. His statement today has only complicated the work of governors and public health officials who are trying to save lives.”

“This virus doesn’t discriminate or make exceptions on the basis of religion, and neither should the president,” added Fish.

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Trump Wants Churches Opened Up This Weekend (Even If Christians Get Sick or Die) | Hemant Mehta | Friendly Atheist

Rarely is a politician eager to kill off his own base. But Donald Trump likely thinks promoting the idea of Christian persecution is worth the sacrifice of a bunch of elderly Christians who foolishly attend church this weekend despite the very real threat of COVID-19.

Trump said at a press conference this afternoon that he believed churches were “essential” — they’re not, certainly not in the pandemic sense — and that they should reopen this weekend no matter what.

President Donald Trump on Friday said he has deemed churches and other houses of worship “essential” and called on governors to allow them to reopen this weekend despite the threat of the coronavirus.

“Today I’m identifying houses of worship — churches, synagogues and mosques — as essential places that provide essential services,” Trump said during a hastily arranged press conference Friday. He said if governors don’t abide by his request, he will “override” them, though it’s unclear what authority he has to do so.

He doesn’t have that authority. The people who constantly whine about states’ rights don’t seem to know how the 10th Amendment works. It’s also weird that the same president who wanted to ban Muslims from entering the country is now pretending to care about their “religious freedom.” (For what it’s worth, American mosques have, by and large, remained closed during this pandemic because they understand the health risk.)

Trump also added that “We need more prayer, not less,” not pointing out that God can presumably hear you from wherever you are, even if you’re alone, and you don’t need to be in a place of worship for your prayers to “count.”

As it stands, churches that have already opened up have been notoriously awful about following safety guidelines, which is why we’ve seen many outbreaks at places of worship. Unlike grocery stores, which are actually essential, churches are meant to be places where you interact with other people, sing/talk/open your mouth, shake hands and hug, etc. Keeping your social distance is all but impossible for people used to a specific style of worship. And unlike getting groceries, you’re not just going in and out as quickly as possible.

The pastors who open their doors right now are ultimately putting their own members in harm’s way. They don’t care. They think this is about “freedom” because a lifetime of rejecting science has turned following sensible virus protocols into an anti-faith conspiracy theory. And Trump is eager to egg them on because his base is too ignorant to realize he doesn’t give a damn about them.

When asked where Trump would be attending church this weekend, by the way, he ignored the question. Because of course he did. He’s not putting his life in danger if he doesn’t have to; he’s fine with letting gullible Christians do it on his behalf.

Since Trump and a bunch of pastors don’t care about the lives of Christians, let me state the obvious: Stay home. Worship from a distance. Wear masks if you go outside. Respect social distancing. Consider the health of strangers because it’s the decent thing to do.

Or, you know, go sacrifice a bunch of elderly Christians to own the libs. I don’t understand the strategy but a bunch of conservatives seem all too eager to embrace it.

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My Journey to Atheism and What I Encountered Along the Way

winding road

This post initially appeared as five separate posts on Atheist Revolution from 2005-2007. It was consolidated into the post you are now reading and revised in 2020.

I have often enjoyed reading the personal accounts from atheist bloggers about their journeys to atheism, so I figured it was time to share mine. If nothing else, it will be a good excuse for some self-reflection around how I came to believe what I do. Or at least, how I came to stop believing in something (i.e., gods) in which I previously believed.

My Christian Background

I was raised in a mainline Protestant church (Methodist) by parents who thought that it would be good for me to be exposed to religion. To some degree, they may have been thinking about the disadvantage I would have experienced growing up in the United States without knowing about Christianity or being part of the privileged tribe. But the primary reason they gave me at the time involved their concern over the health of my “soul.” I did not hear much about hell at home, but it played a role in why it was so important for me to grow up as a believing Christian. My parents also attended church for the social benefits, and I suspect that this was why they continued to go for a few years after I was out of the home.

My earliest memories of religion involved fear. Like our primitive ancestors, I was afraid of the unknown. As a young child, just about everything was unknown. Added to this, I was a bit more neurotic than most. I prayed because I was afraid of what would happen if I didn’t. Nobody needed to threaten me with hellfire and damnation; the suggestion of an invisible man in the sky who might torture me forever if I didn’t behave was enough. My prayers at this time were never about asking for crap I wanted and almost always attempts to prevent bad things from happening to those I loved.

Entering public school (on the West Coast) exposed me to a couple of new ideas. First, I learned that religion was something that was considered a deeply personal and private matter. One did not generally discuss it with others or hear about it at school. This was very different from experiences I would have a couple decades later in Mississippi. Second, despite the private nature of religion, the children generally assumed that everyone was Christian. This type of Christianity in no way resembled the evangelical forms I would encounter later, but there was surprise and sometimes ridicule for anyone who did not identify as Christian. I had friends of all different Christian denominations (e.g., Protestants, Catholics, Mormons), but differences in what they believed were almost never discussed.

Church was a formal, stuffy affair where children were expected to be seen but not heard. The young ones were dismissed mid-way through the service and before the sermon to Sunday school in another building. I guess the adults realized that we weren’t going to understand the sermon (they were right). We were always relieved when it was time to exit the sanctuary and head off to Sunday school. I remember very little about Sunday school except that it involved a lot of singing and crafts (both of which I hated) and always seemed to be more focused on the younger children. I also remember being very happy when it was over.

A Rebellious Streak Leads to Freethought

During my junior high years, my attitudes toward religion began to shift as a result of several factors. First, as my self-confidence gradually improved, I found myself praying less frequently. Since my primary motivation for prayer had involved anxiety, it is not surprising that prayer became less relevant. It had also become increasingly clear that there was nothing on the receiving end of my prayers. At least, I never received any sort of response. Second, my classmates increasingly viewed going to church and expressions of piety as uncool. Being “bad” was cool; being a church-going “goody-two-shoes” was not. Cigarettes, heavy metal, and MTV (they actually played music videos in those days) became part of the context. Church did not fit into this. Third, I became increasingly bored with church. Every Sunday I tried to think of creative ways to be permitted to skip church. Although I could tell that my father would have preferred to stay home and watch football, my mother continued to insist that it was good for us. With my increasingly rebellious streak, this would set the stage for plenty of conflict.

My boredom with church gradually turned to dislike and eventually hatred. It was completely irrelevant to my life. When I forced myself to pay attention, I noticed one contradiction after another. I looked around and found myself wondering why the people in the room didn’t seem to live their lives in accordance with what they supposedly believed. The sense of hypocrisy became overwhelming. Sunday mornings brought frequent arguments with my parents, as I was no longer afraid to criticize what I saw as a major waste of time. Somewhere around the end of junior high and beginning of high school, my parents finally decided that I was old enough to refuse church if I chose to do so. I would go willingly on Christmas eve, Easter, etc. to appease others, but that was plenty.

The culture of high school was similar (i.e., excessively pious kids were often the butt of jokes), but there was an important difference. For the first time, I was exposed to evangelical Christianity (e.g., “Don’t bother to ask her out – she’s one of those Bible thumpers.”). I had a close friend during this time whose parents were both pastors at an evangelical church. While he was anything but religious, he was required to attend a church where speaking in tongues was common. His parents would later burn his heavy metal record collection, conduct a full-blown exorcism over him while several parishioners held him down, and eventually throw him out of their house. This was the first time I had encountered anything like this. Sadly, it would not be the last.

By this time, I had discovered politics, science, and philosophy. As I found myself in agreement with my parents’ moderately liberal politics and was excited by learning about world history, science, and philosophy, religion transformed from a well-intentioned waste of time to something more sinister. I began to discover freethought, and I saw that faith demanded blind acceptance of things which were not supported by science. History demonstrated countless atrocities committed in the name of religion. Philosophy showed that morality need not derive from religion. Perhaps most significantly, my increased exposure to politics convinced me that the overwhelming majority of people who called themselves Christian were hypocrites who had embraced capitalism and a disdain for the poor over Jesus.

Time for Christian College

As high school graduation neared, I found myself becoming more liberal than my parents on most issues (e.g., I supported the legalization of drugs, animal rights, and became concerned about the environment). I saw no use for religion, but my feelings toward it were somewhat less hostile than they had been previously. Had you met me at the time, I might have even described myself as “spiritual but not religious.” I saw religion more as a waste of time than a destructive force. My feelings toward most believers could be described as a mixture of pity and disdain.

Under the guidance of my parents and a few influential high school teachers whom I trusted, my college application process focused on private liberal arts colleges. I had the grades to get in, and my grandparents were willing to help with the expenses to fund what they saw as a superior education. I was in complete agreement with everyone advising me that a small liberal arts college offered too many advantages to pass up (e.g., small class sizes, an opportunity to work closely with faculty, higher academic standards than state schools, etc.). The fact that all the liberal arts colleges I was considering were religious institutions did not bother me because they played down their religious origins and emphasized the quality of the education they provided.

I ended up at a liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest with a student body of approximately 4,500 at the time. The influence of religion turned out to be something of a paradox. Most of the faculty with whom I would work closely were either openly atheistic or so quiet about their religion that one could not guess what they might believe. The students were another matter entirely. I would say that approximately 50% of the student body were conservative Christians. Still, conservative Christians in the Northwest were nothing like those in other parts of the country. Most had no interest in converting anyone; they just preferred to hang out with their own kind and talk about how the rest of us were going to hell.

Academically, I was drawn to psychology, philosophy, and law. The pre-law program was fairly weak, so I ended up majoring in psychology and minoring in philosophy. I loved the liberal arts perspective of encouraging students to expose themselves to a wide variety of subjects. I took courses in biology, anthropology, art, and even religion (Christianity and Buddhism). Outside of my major, my favorite courses by far were the philosophy of religion, a survey of Buddhism, and an advanced philosophy seminar on identity and the nature of personhood.

I had discovered Bertrand Russell in high school, and I read more of him in college. This helped me to realize that not believing was a viable option with a long history behind it. I was quite open about being an atheist during at least 3 of my 4 years in college. I regularly debated Christian students, wrote most of my philosophy papers on the flaws of religious arguments, and had several great discussions with peers and faculty on the subject. I felt truly alive during this time and experienced virtually no meaningful consequences from my openness with atheism. There were plenty of rational students around, and my circle of friends was large. For the first time in my life, I felt free to be open about my atheism.

In retrospect, the lack of consequences for being so open seems surprising. Of course, the culture of the Pacific Northwest at the time was very different than most of the places I’ve lived since. But I don’t think that this was the only factor. My mindset at the time was very different than it is now – much more idealistic and carefree. I suppose it would be accurate to say that any rejection I may have encountered due to my atheism simply rolled off my back so that I barely noticed it. If someone didn’t like my viewpoint, that was their problem. I never dwelled on it. It sucks that this had to change.

The Religion of Political Correctness

Looking back on it, I think attending this particular Christian university was exactly what I needed at that time in my life. I received an outstanding secular education, studied Christianity from both a theological and philosophical position, and honed my critical thinking and debate skills. I read Hobbes, Hume, Kant, Thoreau, Freud, and of course, Bertrand Russell. It was Russell’s excellent Why I Am Not a Christian: And Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects that gave me permission to fully reject Christianity and helped me understand that I was certainly not the first to do so. By the end of college, I was openly atheistic and experiencing the joy of finally breaking free of religious indoctrination.

I headed off to a Ph.D. program the summer after I graduated. In retrospect, it might not have hurt me to do a bit more growing up before beginning graduate school, but I felt like I needed to capitalize on the momentum I had built up in college and keep going while my motivation was high. I would not be exaggerating to say that nearly everything about my new graduate program was a shock. My life changed so dramatically that I would end up becoming a very different person than the one who had just completed college. Relevant to my purpose here, I was immersed in a very different view of religion than anything I had previously experienced.

The community in which I resided was much smaller and more conservative than the area I had left on the West Coast. Religion was still a rather private matter here, but it was certainly more prevalent. This shift was trivial compared with what I experienced in graduate school itself. Not only was I the only atheist among my peers, but I would soon learn a very difficult lesson about my chosen field of psychology which continues to impact me to this day.

An important part of my training involved multiculturalism. This is typical in the helping professions because programs are faced with preparing students who may have had rather limited experiences with diverse groups to competently provide services to members of these groups. To my amazement, religious belief was considered part of multiculturalism in the sense that critical attitudes toward religion were perceived as an unacceptable form of intolerance just like human differences based on race, gender, or sexual orientation. For more on this, see see this post

As you can imagine, this put me in an excruciatingly difficult position. It was made clear to me that successful completion of the program would depend on my ability to keep my thoughts on religion and even my atheism to myself. Merely by being an atheist, I was perceived as not having adequate respect for religious believers. Trust of my peers became an issue, as I learned that statements I had made outside of school got back to a professor. Clearly, this was not a safe environment to be open about atheism. I became increasingly depressed, withdrawn, and distant. I convinced myself that this had to be a fluke of this program and couldn’t possibly reflect the field as a whole. I was determined to soldier on, bury my atheism, and refocus my energies on my studies. I would succeed, but success would come at a price it would take me years to understand.

Down in Dixie

I made it through graduate school but only by suppressing my atheism and pretending that criticizing someone’s religious beliefs was akin to racism. A form of multiculturalism that insisted that religious belief was on the same level with race, gender, and sexual orientation was something I wanted no part of, but I had invested too much to let myself flunk out. I was told that I was being evaluated on my openness, willingness to self-disclose, and exploration of how my beliefs impacted my work with others. But I learned that merely questioning someone’s religious beliefs equated with criticism of someone’s race and was evidence of serious intolerance. To survive, I had to bury my atheism and profess respect for religious belief.

This bind was nearly intolerable at times. I vividly recall turning in “personal reflection” papers where we were supposed to discuss our racial, ethnic, gender, and religious identities. When I disclosed my atheism in one of these papers, it became the subject of intense class discussion and condemnation. As the only atheist, I was expected to defend why I rejected religion without saying anything even mildly critical of religious belief. My peers seemed to think that my very presence in the program was a threat to their spiritual well-being. I became increasingly isolated. At least one professor penalized me for being intolerant because she felt that atheism was per se evidence of intolerance.

I made it through the program and completed my Ph.D. but not without lots of second thoughts about what I was doing and why. Looking back on it, I suppose I can almost see a valuable lesson about society’s tolerance of atheism in there somewhere. I had largely been sheltered from this while living in the Pacific Northwest. It was a difficult lesson but one I needed to learn. As I moved to Mississippi for a job, I would be surrounded by Christian fundamentalists. Perhaps it was a good thing that I learned how to conceal my beliefs about religion.

Mississippi is by far the most religious place I have ever lived (or even visited). Nothing I had previously experienced prepared me for the degree to which evangelical fundamentalist Christianity is part of public life. Within weeks of being here, I had been approached by complete strangers in the grocery store and at the gas station with some variation of, “Hi there! What church do you attend?” My wife at the time was repeatedly told by strangers that she was going to burn in hell after she indicated that she did not attend church. She was also subjected to mandatory prayer meetings at work and persistent invitations to attend church with her boss and his family. Our next-door neighbor never spoke to me again after I politely told him that we did not attend church. I was invited to church by nearly every co-worker, secretary, pest control technician, and delivery person I encountered. I know this is hard to believe if you haven’t spent time in the South, but I am not exaggerating.

I know that the obvious question is why I am still here. There are days when I ask myself the same question. If it wasn’t for enjoying my job, really liking some of the people I work with, and the feeling that being settled (even in a place with many negatives) is better than the ordeal of going an academic job search again, I would have left long ago. Other perks include the winter weather, the cheap housing, and the small-town atmosphere. But if I am honest with myself, I suppose another reason I’m still here is that I’ve made a lot of progress learning to become comfortable in my own skin, less concerned with what others think, and more willing to be true to myself even when it is unpopular. I’ve gained something intangible from struggling against Christian extremism while being in its heart. I’m not saying I don’t still have a long way to go, but there has been movement, and I suppose that is what helps me keep going.

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American Atheists Condemns Church Burning and Possible Atheist Connection

Cranford, NJ—Today, the civil rights organization American Atheists denounced the suspected arson, Wednesday, of First Pentecostal Church in Holly Springs, Mississippi. A photograph reveals graffiti of what appears to be an atomic whirl, a common atheist symbol, and the words, “Bet you stay home now you hypokrits [sic],” spray-painted on the ground near the church’s steps.

Nick Fish, president of American Atheists, released the following statement:

Words cannot capture how strongly we condemn this heinous act of destruction. I hope that the perpetrator of this crime is swiftly brought to justice and held to account for their actions. No one should face violence of any kind because of their religion or lack thereof. No matter what our disagreements may be, violence is never the appropriate response.

I’m disgusted that anyone would associate a symbol of our community with something so incompatible with our values as atheists. Pluralism, open dialogue, finding common ground, and protecting equality under the law have never been more important than they are today.

My thoughts are with the members of the First Pentecostal Church during this difficult time.

The First Pentecostal Church is currently suing the city of Holly Springs over its safer-at-home order, alleging that the order violates their First Amendment rights.

Image via YouTube

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Baltimore Pastor Tears Up Cease-and-Desist Order in Front of Overcrowded Church | Hemant Mehta | Friendly Atheist

While Maryland is allowing churches to reopen at 50% capacity, Baltimore County is holding local gathering spaces to stricter rules. That meant Calvary Baptist Church was violating the law when it allowed 100 congregations to gather last night. The county’s Department of Health and Human Services sent Pastor Stacey Shiflett a cease-and-desist order since his actions were jeopardizing public safety. It threatened him with a $5,000 fine.

So, naturally, he ripped it up in a display of arrogance and ignorance.

The Baptist pastor posted video of the shredding on Twitter, in which he can be heard preaching: “With this cease-and-desist letter in my hand, the Bible says to the New Testament church ‘not forsaking the assembling of yourselves together as the manner of some is, but so much more as you see the day approaching,’ and the closer we get to Jesus coming back, the more church we ought to be having, not less church.

“Now that’s God’s parameters,” he added. “So I’m tearing up this cease-and-desist order right here, and I’m telling you right now, we’re gonna do it God’s way! God tells us how to worship Him, nobody else gets to do that.

It’s like Jesus when said, “If I have to die on this cross, I’m taking the rest of you suckers down with me.”

The money isn’t the issue, obviously. Displays of Christian faux-victimhood always raise plenty of cash. This is about a pastor who thinks putting the community in harm’s way is better for his religion than preaching to an empty church and live-streaming it. He’d rather see people get sick or die than be mildly inconvenienced because that’s what Christianity teaches him to do.

It should be mentioned that churches aren’t the only places where these restrictions apply. It’s not like other religious groups are allowed to meet, but churches are not. Shiflett is deliberately packing people into his building beyond what’s allowed so he can pretend to be persecuted.

Even his lawyer is playing dumb:

David Gibbs III of the National Center for Life and Liberty and legal counsel for Calvary Baptist told the local CBS station: “If Walmart’s open, it’s time for the churches to be open.”

Walmart has food and clothes and other necessities. People aren’t standing out to congregate. They’re getting what they need, while wearing masks, and getting the hell out.

Shiflett is running a book club. He can do it from a distance. He’s choosing not to, because ripping up paper from your home office never looks as dramatic as doing it in front of a crowd.

What a weak, pathetic pastor. Pity his even more deluded congregation. They’re the ones who stand to suffer most because of his selfish protest.

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Why “Know Them By Their Deeds?”

man with a bible sitting against a wall

Regular readers will know that I periodically post reports of crimes committed by Christians (and yes, they do not magically stop being real Christians the moment they do something wrong). I sometimes include the phrase “Know Them By Their Deeds” in the titles of such posts and have received criticism for doing so. Although I don’t write posts like this nearly as often as I once did, I still think they have value. So, why would I include that phrase in the post?

The meaning of the “know them by their deeds” phrase comes from the Christian bible. Matthew 7:16 reads, “Ye shall know them by their fruits,” and translators of the Greek and Hebrew generally interpret “fruit” as “deed,” “act,” or “work.” The meaning of the phrase is that it is often misleading to base one’s impression of someone on their words and that we are better off focusing on their behavior. That is, know them not so much by what they say but what they do. Seems like helpful advice, doesn’t it?

I use this phrase at times to highlight Christian hypocrisy. We all know that many Christians are fond of claiming moral superiority over nonbelievers. And yet, their deeds often suggest otherwise. Examples of Christian wrongdoing are plentiful, and it is important to note that this in no way makes someone any less Christian.

My use of the “know them by their deeds” phrase is not intended to signify that I believe all believers are wicked. I believe no such thing. Rather, I use the phrase to point out the hypocrisy inherent in claiming that their religion makes them morally superior to the rest of us when their actions are no better than ours.

But why would any self-respecting atheist bother to reference the “holy” bible at all? I think there is something to be said for trying to meet people where they’re at and for using language they might understand. I’d be lying if I claimed to never have any misgivings about it, but that’s the argument I’d make in favor of doing it.

An early version of this post first appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2007. It was revised and updated in 2020.

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