The following is a commentary in an ongoing series of “Reflections” by John Mill. John Mill is the radio persona of Ronald Bruce Meyer and can be heard on “American Heathen.” “The American Heathen” Internet radio broadcast is aired, live, on Friday nights from 7:00pm-10:00pm Central time on ShockNetRadio.com
You Need Us, Brother
A Reflection by Ronald Bruce Meyer
Is one of the characteristics of the cult of Christianity to be blatantly bigoted and insultingly insensitive?
I’ve been thinking about the newly-inaugurated Alabama governor who caused controversy by declaring at a Birmingham church meeting,
"Anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I'm telling you, you're not my brother and you're not my sister, and I want to be your brother. If the Holy Spirit lives in you that makes you my brothers and sisters."
Well, that really pissed off the Jews and the Muslims. And that’s not surprising because it’s their job to take offense and enter “high dudgeon mode” at the drop of a tendentious word. But what should we atheists think?
First, some clarification of terms. Was Alabama Governor Robert Bentley being bigoted? Yes, if you define bigotry as being intolerant of people who hold different views. Was Governor Bentley being insensitive? Yes, if you define insensitive as being indifferent to the importance of something, and unaware of the impact of what you say in your official capacity.
So Governor Bentley was being intolerant and insensitive. Now, does it matter? It matters if you take offense. But taking offense is a choice, not an automatic or inevitable response. Is it surprising? Definitely no. But not because we as atheists expect Christians to be intolerant and insensitive. No, a lot of them, perhaps most of them, are tolerant and sensitive. We as atheists can get along with these Christians, even if we continue to doubt their commitment to logic and reason.
So why is Governor Bentley’s bigotry upsetting? It’s because, as we’ve seen on countless occasions, words have weight. Words incite action. And I think it’s a short step from “you're not my brother” to “I’m going to kill you.” Let me tell you why.
Every religious group thinks in binary terms: there are “the people” and then there are “the others.” This is something Rodney Stark pointed out in his 1992 book on the sociology of religion called The Churching of America. The religious group derives its sense of uniqueness and superiority from groupthink and from living in tension with, and sometimes against, society.
We saw this most horrifically with Jim Jones and the 1978 Jonestown mass suicide. What is the difference, then, between a madman telling true believers to kill themselves because those who are not their brothers and sisters are trying to destroy their religious paradise – and a Governor Bentley warning fellow parishioners that they are better off inside the faith than outside it?
It’s bad enough that Bentley is an elected official who is supposed to be working for all the citizens of his state. With his words he has cut off a good number of them. But more than that, he has sent his bigoted message well beyond the borders of his church and across the nation.
Yes, he has given the standard non-apology apology that most politicians give. He had to. As the poet said, “Those compelled against their will are of the same opinion still.” And he has cut off the portion of the population that stands ready to protect Bentley from himself and the stupid things people do when they follow a bronze-age moral code and the teachings of a mythical bastard child who preaches the end of the world.
You know what, Governor Bentley? I may not live in Alabama, and you may not think I’m your brother, but me and my atheist friends – you need us, brother!
"The spirit of dogmatic theology poisons everything it touches," said Bentham. "There is no pestilence in a state like a zeal for religion, independent of morality."