Freethought Almanac

Lighting a candle in toxic air.

Whose Side Are You On?

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

Whose Side Are You On?

A Reflection by Ronald Bruce Meyer

When I make a mistake, and I can’t wiggle out of it with some clever excuse, I own up to it and take the criticism. Even though it hurts my ego to be wrong, when I am wrong – and I’m wrong more than I care to admit – I apologize and strive to do better in the future. What irks me more than being wrong is being wrong because I was insufficiently skeptical. Imagine that! An atheist who is insufficiently skeptical! But when you find some “fact” that supports your side, you kind of want to defend it like you’re defending your home; it’s hard to let go.

Let me give you an example: when I was creating the Freethought Almanac back in 2003 and 2004, I found a quote from the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who is credited with being the first to circumnavigate the earth, that was just perfect: “The church says the earth is flat," wrote Magellan, "but I know that it is round, for I have seen the shadow on the moon, and I have more faith in a shadow than in the church.” I included it in the Almanac with glee.

But in reading casually about the life of Magellan, I came to find the quote didn’t seem to fit. It is fair to say that Magellan believed in God – Magellan's will, written in 1519, shows he was quite obviously a firm believer in God and Jesus. He paid some monks on his departure to pray for his success. He managed to have many of the native peoples he encountered on his voyages baptized into the Catholic faith. But then the real test came: I read enough of Romance languages to be able to spot this quote or something like it in the writings of Ferdinand Magellan, even if written in Portuguese. But though I searched the collection at the Library of Congress, I could not find the original that was quoted by Ira Detrich Cardiff in What Great Men Think of Religion (1945).

As Freethinkers, we’re on the side of a cause, but we’re neither Right nor Left. And we’re also committed to truth, reason, democracy and ethical behavior. People already think Freethinkers are evil; it doesn’t do for people to think we’ll lie to promote our cause. When “our side” gets it wrong, and doesn’t come clean, that taints every one of us. And that makes me angry.

Let me give you an example. I get upset with David Barton misrepresenting history; but I will not tolerate lying from anyone, even those with whom I agree most of the time. Take Dan Barker, prominent atheist and co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. In a May 1995 article published in the FFRF journal, , Barker responded to the Oklahoma City terrorist attack on the Murrah Federal Building that same year, asking, “When extremists from predominantly Moslem countries commit violence, many in the media refer to them as ‘Islamic terrorists.’ Why is no one calling the Oklahoma City bombing suspects ‘Christian terrorists’?”

I think the two chiefly responsible for the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil until 9/11/01 – Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols – were terrorists. I agree the incident was horrible. But were McVeigh and Nichols Christian terrorists. Were they motivated by religion? It’s not that I give any quarter to religious bigots. I’ve searched all over and I cannot find sufficient evidence to pin this crime on Jesus Juice.

Those on the religious right wing are understandably desperate to distance their creed from such a crime. That leads them to utter non-sequiters such as Jimmy Li saying, “How anyone could say McVeigh was a Christian is beyond this writer’s mind. His action and deeds definitely does not [sic] reflect that of a virtuous believer.” Although Li fails to make the connection between virtue and belief in a skygod, his next point is credible: Dan Barker quotes no source for his assertion that McVeigh and Nichols were Christian, at least in the fundamentalist sense.

Indeed, there is a lot of evidence to the contrary: McVeigh and Nichols were first and foremost anti-government militia sympathizers, and only incidentally associated with any hostile religious movement. McVeigh was reared Roman Catholic, rejected his religion and admitted to being an agnostic; Nichols converted to religion in jail, which means he didn’t have much belief before. Both were inspired by The Turner Diaries, which depicts a violent revolution in the United States, leading to the overthrow of the United States federal government and, ultimately, to a race war leading to the extermination of all Jews and non-whites. The author, William Luther Pierce, writing under a pen name, was founder of “Cosmotheism,” a religion based on white supremacy, pantheism, eugenics, and National Socialism.

That Timothy McVeigh subscribed to some kind of religion is true. Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck, author of American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing (2001), in writing their book spent hours interviewing McVeigh and 150 other people who knew him. Michel and Herbeck write,

McVeigh is agnostic. He doesn't believe in God, but he won't rule out the possibility. I asked him, ‘What if there is a heaven and hell?’
He said that once he crosses over the line from life to death, if there is something on the other side, he will -- and this is using his military jargon – ‘adapt, improvise, and overcome.’ Death to him is all part of the adventure.”

Furthermore, although he was inspired by hatred of the US government, wanted revenge for the botched FBI and ATF raids on Ruby Ridge and Waco, and wanted to “wake Americans up,” there is no evidence that the “Christian Identity” part of McVeigh’s militia association was a motivator: in fact, he pretty much rejected the Christian part and subscribed only to the white supremacist Identity part.

Finally, neither McVeigh nor Nichols ever admitted to killing out of religious motives. At the time of the bombing, neither even considered themselves Christians. And on the two occasions when McVeigh had the opportunity to explain himself, at his sentencing and his execution, thee was no mention of Jesus. So, until I hear compelling evidence to the contrary, such as some positive statement of Christian belief and some indication that Christian belief drove these criminals to terrorism, I can only call the Oklahoma City bombing a terrorist attack, not a Christian terrorist attack.

That said, you may wonder if I think there really are any Christian terrorists? Yes. But they admit it – like those religious extremists who attack reproductive health clinics that provide abortion services and shoot the doctors who work there. And, to a lesser extent, those creationists and other Christian anti-science bigots who would turn back the clock on the science and empiricism that make the longevity, prosperity, health – and yes, the morality – of the modern world possible. Or anybody who uses a moral crusade to kill or deny rights to anybody they don’t agree with, so long as it’s done in the name of Jesus.

Now Dan Barker has never, as far as I know, owned up to his mistake, made because he was insufficiently skeptical. But he is right on one point: he says that God certainly could have prevented what we humans consider an immoral killing (with our puny sense of morality that is defiantly independent of our belief in a skygod). Yet God did nothing. So we should never be asking God for comfort. Believers, he says, should be asking God, “Whose side are you on?”

Copyright © 2010-11 Ronald Bruce Meyer. To hear an audio version of this Reflection, click on this link: Whose Side Are You On

Ronald Bruce Meyer

Our Fearless Leader.

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