Pharyngula

The Pew Forum surveyed Americans on their knowledge of religion, and discovered that the group most generally knowledgeable about world religions was…those unshriven hellbound godless folk. This does not sit well with many believers, who have long preferred to relegate atheists to a hell of total unawareness of the gods, smugly assuming that if only we knew what they knew, we’d be True Believers in god in general and their specific, narrow sect in particular. That we might actually know what they believe and not only choose to not believe, but also to regard their superstitions as ridiculous, is unthinkable.

You will have a difficult time finding someone more offended by reality than John Mark Reynolds, professor of Catholic rationalization at the Bible Institute of Los Angeles. He’s got an excuse: atheists are trivia kings but bad thinkers. We’d do well on the home Bible version of Jeopardy, but you see, we really don’t understand the facts, and we lack the wisdom to hear the secret music of theology.

This surprises me. Apparently, the Trinity is trivia, an idea I can sort of sympathize with, but Professor Reynolds’ own Catholic faith waged bloody wars over the Arian heresy—people by the thousands were slaughtered because they didn’t believe that Jesus and the Holy Ghost had equal status and substance with the One True God. Ask the Visigoths. Oh, you can’t — they’re all dead.

And now we learn that transubstantiation is also trivial! Where was John Mark Reynolds a few years ago? I could have used his help calming the raging hordes of Catholics who were outraged that I should desecrate a cracker. He was on their side, damning me as a vandal of all that was right and good, you say? Oh. I guess it wasn’t all so trivial after all. And again, representatives of his faith have in the past used the sanctity of their magic crackers as an excuse to slaughter thousands of Jews, men, women, and children, for imagined slights against that trivia. What a shame that they died over something so unimportant.

John Mark Reynolds is not done undercutting his own points right there in the title of his article, though. No, he pens an incoherent, inconsistent, contradictory mess of assertions because atheists outscore his team in trivia contests. The Christian martyr complex is on full display here.

As a boutique belief system in the United States, atheism has a good many advantages. There are so few atheists and agnostics that they do not run all the risks of a populist movement. Not for them is the burden of dealing with the masses of a global population, their idiosyncrasies, worries and all.

Since Christians make up three-quarters or more of the American general population, we have the burden of accounting for almost everybody’s problems. Sadly, we are much less well represented in elite education, media, and government. This is not because religion is incompatible with elite education, but because “skepticism” about religion has become a sociological way for the elite to mark themselves off from the rest of us. In this sense, anti-religion (and in particularly anti-Catholicism) serves the same function that joining the “right” church used to serve in another era.

See, atheists are the ones who are trivial — we’re so few in numbers that we hardly count, and since we make no difference at all we escape responsibility. We’re negligible, just the thin scum riding on the surface of the deep ocean of Christianity. And Christianity…oh, man, poor Christians. They’re the responsible ones who have to take care of all those sick people and maintain the economy and work so hard to maintain everyone else’s moral probity. Atheism is just the fashionable façade of the “elites” (I do so wish the people who sneer at “elites” would look up the meaning of the word. It is not a synonym for “dregs”).

I did learn something new here. Despite the pitiful fact of our miniscule numbers and complete irrelevance, teachers are mostly atheists, Fox News and CNN are run by atheists, and most our senators and representatives and governors are atheists. It’s as if we belong to a secret sinister cabal that has sneakily taken over the entire culture.

I wish!

It’s a strange state of civilization that Reynolds imagines. Christianity is entirely responsible for all the important stuff, but somehow, this insignificant film of godless elitists are entirely responsible for every one of the faults of society. We have a culture of entertainment that is all the fault of a tiny minority, and no, no, no, Christians didn’t participate in or create any of it.

The secular elite has provided most of us with wretched religious education by all but banning it as a topic for serious enquiry or discussion. Meanwhile, they know just enough about religion to get some “facts” right on a pop-religion quiz, but have no grasp on why, despite all temptations, some thoughtful folk remain religious. They know some of the lyrics of religion, but cannot hear the music.

You might blame Christian education in churches for this problem, except a culture of entertainment has reduced most Americans ability to tolerate difficult discussions. Pity the pastor, with seminary training in ancient languages and a carefully constructed sermon, who must face a congregation taught by television to anticipate education with Muppets and Katy Perry.

Damn you, Veggie Tales, you spawn of the Global Atheist Conspiracy! Elmo is Satan!

Reynolds returns to his contradictory message that only Christianity does good, while atheism tells people to commit criminal acts that will get them sent to jail.

Weirdly, Christians must clean up the mess of broader culture, but we have had little power to create pop culture in the last fifty years. The poor and the disadvantaged are always the first to bear the brunt of bad cultural ideas and only the religious remain on the ground to try to help. Christians, for example, try to keep people from doing the things that get men sent to prison, but then work hard to help prisoners once people fail.

In this sense it is easier to be an agnostic or atheist. You have rejected the mainstream of American history, which means you don’t have to take responsibility for its failures, though you can appropriate its successes.

But wait, Professor Reynolds! Isn’t this whole essay patently about denying Christian responsibility for the current state of affairs, placing the entire blame on the shoulders of a minority you simultaneously deride as being so tiny they can’t take credit for anything? How do you get a professorship when your brain is so confused and inconsistent?

Oh, right. He’s at Biola. Never mind. Being a fervent defender of the faith is enough there.

But wait, we have to look at a peculiar tangent the Catholic professor takes. He’s open-minded, he’s advocating learning more about lots of religions, so he has to suggest that we learn more about all kinds of weird cults and sects and beliefs, and that means even learning about the Latter Day Saints.

For example, one of the most influential books first published by an American is the Book of Mormon. It appears in almost no American government school curriculum, though it exercises a global influence and impacts the lives of millions of Americans. This is foolish. I am, to say the least, no Mormon partisan, but there are entire states in our nation that cannot be understood without some grounding in Mormon thought.

How many American college graduates have a more charitable comprehension of the indigenous culture of Paris than of Salt Lake City? Mormon Utah can only wish it were treated as gently as “other cultures” are in a politically correct curriculum.

That’s interesting. I lived in Salt Lake City for seven years. I frequently left the walled enclave of the University of Utah to explore Mormon culture — I’ve heard the Tabernacle Choir, I read parts of the Book of Mormon and The Pearl of Great Price (but not their entireties, there are limits to the schlock I can digest), I took the official tours, I’ve read on the history of Utah, I visited the genealogy archives, I’ve shopped at ZCMI and played with my kids at Liberty Park. I know Mormon culture about as well as a curious Gentile can, so once again, here’s an atheist with significant knowledge about a faith he denies.

And you know what I learned about Mormonism? It’s a lot of wacky bullshit, with some very nasty misogynistic undertones. I also encourage everyone to learn more about this foolishness, one of the many brands of pretentious nonsense advocated under the guise of religion, but I will not suggest that our views of this poison have to be “charitable”. Why should they be? It’s far wiser and not at all trivial to recognize that millions of people live lies and believe in fairy tales that are wrong.


I have been informed that Reynolds is not Catholic. He belongs to some weird Eastern Orthodox sect. Knowing this, however, is simply trivia, so I can’t feel too guilty about missing the details of his superstition. He might think it’s non-trivial, though, since he did almost lose his job over it.