Monday, February 4, 2013

Opting Out of Reality For Jesus

The simple act of questioning whether organized religion makes people stupid is bound to provoke a heated response. On one hand, there are people who claim to live in faith-based communities who attribute every event in their lives to the will of God. On the other hand, there are those (like my family) who are confirmed atheists.

The fact that my father was a high school science teacher has a lot to do with that.  One of our family's first encounters with crazy Christians came shortly after Daddy received a grant from the National Science Foundation to attend one of its summer institutes at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Shortly after settling into our dorm, a young girl from Oklahoma asked my sister if she would be joining her family at church on Sunday. When Alice explained that we didn't go to church because we were Jewish, Brenda gasped in awe and excitedly asked "Really?  Can I see your horns?"

A retired school librarian who recently moved from New Jersey to Reno, Alice was co-hosting a TED Talk event for seniors last month when one of the attendees mentioned how much she would like to be able to watch one of the TED talks again. My sister casually mentioned that the woman could easily do so by going to the URL listed on the handout.

When asked what a URL was, Alice explained to the woman that she would need to do this on a computer. "I won't touch those things," the woman replied.  "They're Satan driven!"

When people complain about the dumbing down of our educational system, they rarely point to religion as one of the reasons why they have stupid children. And yet:

Is religion merely an enabling device which allows people to justify their bad behavior?

Long after the deaths of such hypocritical televangelists as Jerry ("AIDS is not just God's punishment for homosexuals, it is God's punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals) Falwell, Oral Roberts (who told his followers that unless he raised $8 million by March 1987, God would "call him home"), and Jimmy Swaggart (whose fondness for prostitutes proved to be his undoing) -- all of whom were little more than religious con men, there is plenty of evidence to show how insidiously organized religion has worked to abolish the separation of church and state. All one needs to do is listen to Arkansas State Senator Jason Rapert (a proud Evangelical Christian, birther, and founder of Holy Ghost Ministries) to get a taste of the religious right's holier-than-thou sense of moral superiority.

Karl Marx famously labeled religion as "the opiate of the masses." As a life-long atheist, I've come to believe that many well-intentioned Christians -- who have no idea how thoroughly they have been brainwashed by their religion -- are now acting and speaking like addicts. In their craven lust for power and hunger to control the conversation, they have become hell-bent on forcing their religious delusions on the public at large.

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According to a new report from the Texas Freedom Network entitled Reading, Writing, and Religion II:
  • Many courses teach students to interpret the Bible and even Judaism through a distinctly Christian lens. Whether or not it is intentional, anti-Jewish bias is not uncommon.
  • A number of courses and their instructional materials incorporate pseudo-scholarship, including claims that the Bible provides scientific proof of a 6,000-year-old Earth (young Earth creationism) and that the United States was founded as a Christian nation based on biblical Christian principles. 
  • At least one district's Bible course includes materials suggesting that the origins of racial diversity among humans today can be traced back to a curse placed on Noah's son in the biblical story of the flood. Such claims have long been a foundational component of some forms of racism.
  • Astronauts have discovered "a day missing in space" that corroborates biblical stories of the sun standing still.
  • More than half of the state's public school Bible courses taught students to read the book from a specifically Christian theological perspective (a clear violation of rules governing the separation of church and state).
  • Some Bible classes in Texas public schools appear to double as science classes, circumventing limits placed on teaching creationism. The Eastland Independent School District (located outside Fort Worth) shows videos produced by the Creation Evidence Museum, which claims to possess a fossil of a dinosaur footprint atop "a pristine human footprint."
Don McLeroy

Scott Thurman's blood-chilling documentary, The Revisionaries (which will be screened at the SFIndie Film Festival), shows how a group of well-meaning Christians have diligently worked to alter the textbooks read by Texan schoolchildren in order to reflect their severely misguided religious beliefs about history and science. Led by Don McLeroy, a proselytizing dentist from Bryan, Texas (who has serious doubts about evolution and honestly believes that humans coexisted with dinosaurs), the Texas State Board of Education clearly favors the Bible over scientific method. In his director's statement, Thurman writes:
"A few years ago I was inspired by an article by physicist Brian Greene called "Put a Little Science in Your Life." The article encouraged educators to communicate science in ways that capture the drama and excitement of new discoveries mixed in with the standard technical details. My fifth grade science teacher created this energy, sparking my imagination and interest in science and so I sought to produce a short portrait of a science teacher in Texas that's also moving minds with an intense and electrifying message. At the time, I discovered a survey stating that half of the American public did not accept the theory of evolution and so I decided to focus my film on a biology teacher and the lessons on evolution. Not long after I started following these classroom discussions, I learned about the political debate on the State Board of Education in Texas over how evolution would be taught in science and later how the concept of "separation between church and state" would be understood in social studies, among other controversial topics. I became more interested in the political issue over time, but remained focused on having a character-driven story.

As I continued to seek intimate access to a few people that were heavily involved, I was drawn to the magnetic personality of Don McLeroy, chairman of the board, and outspoken creationist on a mission to convince the public and next generation of students that evolution is not sound science and that America is exceptional in part because it was founded on Christian principles. After a year of efforts to gain access, Don slowly opened up to me, eventually allowing me full access to his personal life at work, in his fourth grade Sunday school class and in his home. I'm grateful for Don's willingness to have shared such exclusive aspects of his life for the documentary and my goal is for the compassion and complexities of Don's character to be appreciated and understood beyond the stereotypical persona that's been given to this small town dentist in the past."
Poster art for The Revisionaries

In her book entitled Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, author Hannah Arendt opined that, throughout history, many of the great evils have not been committed by madmen, sociopaths, or tyrants but by well-intentioned, ordinary people who felt that their beliefs were normal. Because much of The Revisionaries involves talking heads (as well as footage of discussions and votes during school board meetings), Thurman's documentary resembles watching frogs and lobsters being lulled to sleep by the rising temperature of the water around them as they are boiled before being served as dinner.

The Revisionaries once again sadly and irrefutably proves that "You can't fix stupid." Here's the trailer:

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