The Twilight Zone of Religion and Conservative Politics

  • Adam Lee counters Christian claims that “new atheism” has collapsed; it hasn’t
  • Greta Christina patiently explains the vacuousness of “Pascal’s Wager”
  • Religious presumption and “our religion”
  • Republicans look to Jesus
  • Republicans can break promises if God tells them to
  • Short items about how Fox News spins a loan repayment; how the fossil fuel industry pays to lie to children; the Scholastic book fair; and indoctrination via a Christian Military Academy
  • Conservative Rich Lowry on the right’s purity tests
  • And the moral collapse of Liberty University


OnlySky, Adam Lee, 16 Oct 2023: The nones aren’t going anywhere


Christian apologists are celebrating the supposed collapse of the atheist movement—but all that’s really happening is that a few formerly high-profile atheists have turned against recent developments in moral progress. They’re getting left behind, but the nonreligious population continues to grow and religion continues to dwindle and decline.

This seems to be an example of wishful thinking combined with generalizing from anecdotes. Or as Lee says, “they’re committing a massive fallacy of the excluded middle.”

Lee cites Justin Brierly in Premier Christianity magazine, citing some (undetailed) change of attitude in Peter Boghossian (whose book I reviewed here) as evidence that “new atheism has collapsed.” Lee responds,

What really happened is that the New Atheist movement, from the beginning, was hampered by an unrepresentative set of spokespeople—mostly male, mostly white, mostly elderly—and we’ve run into the limits of their progressivism. They were fine with questioning and critiquing religion, but they’ve proven unwilling to critique anything else.

Whether it’s feminism, transgender rights, identity politics, immigration, or war—as soon as the sword-point of skepticism was turned on one of their cherished assumptions, they became angry, hidebound cranks. They were only able to dish it out, never to take it. There was a time when they could claim to be on the vanguard of moral progress, but now it’s moved on and they’ve been left impotently sputtering in the rear view mirror. (Also, some of these figures—especially the “intellectual dark web” types—were never leaders of the secular community, except in their own minds.)

I think Adam Lee is overstating this point. The linked article gives examples about Richard Dawkins, Michael Shermer, Sam Harris, and others, in which they reacted badly in some public incident. Frankly, I think they were upset because the political and social world doesn’t play by the same rules as the scientific world, and that’s why they were upset. But sure, be humble too.

In any event, Lee doesn’t see Christianity as poised to resurge, as Justin Brierly claimed. All the evidence shows a gradual decline of the faithful, and the rise of the “nones.” And quotes the same Peter Smith AP article that I linked in this post. Lee concludes,

Christian apologists are celebrating prematurely because they’re confusing what gets reported on with what’s happening. They think of atheism in terms of famous individuals, and assume that what’s going on with them is reflective of the whole secular community.

But that’s not how it works. There’s no atheist pope whose decrees are binding on the rest of us.

The growth of the nonbelievers is gradual and statistical, and for that reason, it’s below the radar. But it’s proceeding regardless of figureheads who attract media attention by making inflammatory, controversial statements. Regardless of what some old sticks-in-the-mud are saying, congregations are still graying and dwindling, churches are still closing, and organized religion as a political force continues to lose power. The religious apologists who are prematurely celebrating the demise of atheism are going to be very surprised and disappointed.

(Again, it’s not “figureheads” trying to attract media attention, in the way celebrities try to attract media attention; it’s that the way the media works, especially the unscrupulous media, the occasional “controversial” statements are the only ones that get attention, or come to the attention of most people.)


Back to Basics: Greta Christina explains why “Pascal’s Wager” is bogus. My response to this, since forever, has been, which one?

AlterNet, Greta Christina, 22 Oct 2023: Opinion | Questioning faith: Is believing in God really a ‘safe bet’?

“Why not believe in God? If you believe and you turn out to be wrong, you haven’t lost anything. But if you don’t believe and you turn out to be wrong, you lose everything. Isn’t believing the safer bet?”

In debates about religion, this argument keeps coming up. Over, and over, and over again. In almost any debate about religion, if the debate lasts long enough, someone is almost guaranteed to bring it up. The argument even has a name: Pascal’s Wager, after Blaise Pascal, the philosopher who most famously formulated it.

And it makes atheists want to tear our hair out.

Not because it’s a great argument… but because it’s such a manifestly lousy one. It doesn’t make logical sense. It doesn’t make practical sense. It trivializes the whole idea of both belief and non-belief. It trivializes reality. In fact, it concedes the argument before it’s even begun. Demolishing Pascal’s Wager is like shooting fish in a barrel. Unusually slow fish, in a tiny, tiny barrel. I almost feel guilty writing an entire piece about it. It’s such low-hanging fruit.

But alas, it’s a ridiculously common argument. In fact, it’s one of the most common arguments made in favor of religion. So today, I’m going to take a deep breath, put on a hat so I don’t tear my hair out, and spend a little time annihilating it.

Which God? The first and most obvious problem with Pascal’s Wager? It assumes there’s only one religion, and only one version of God.

And she goes on to belabor the obvious, or what’s obvious to those not addled by their religion: throughout history there have been *thousands* of gods. And even today, the “god” that various religions and sects believe in is quite different from the “god” of other religions and sects. (Key book on this point: Steven Prothero’s GOD IS NOT ONE, reviewed here.)

Christina goes on with other reasonable questions. Does God even care? Is God that easily fooled? Does this even count as “belief”? Is the cost of belief really nothing? And finally,

Conceding Your Argument Before You’ve Even Started It.

If you take nothing else from this piece, take this:

The moment you propose Pascal’s Wager is the moment you’ve conceded the argument.

Pascal’s Wager isn’t an argument for why God exists and is really real. Pascal’s Wager is, in fact, 100% disconnected from the question of whether God exists and is really real.

…It isn’t an argument. It’s an excuse for why you don’t have an argument. And it’s a completely pathetic excuse.


Along similar lines of religious presumption is this item about a certain simple-minded former president.

Friendly Atheist, Hemant Mehta, 24 Oct 2023: Donald Trump: I’ll block immigrants who “don’t like our religion” from entering the U.S.

What’s “our religion”? Mehta:

You don’t need to ask because you already know.

It’s whatever form of Christianity is practiced by the white evangelical Christians who make up Trump’s base.


From this item’s headline, it’s hard to know if it’s sarcasm or not.

Salon, Gabriella Ferrigine, 23 Oct 2023: Republicans looks for Jesus to take the wheel in the House, subtitled “‘A messiah will be born unto us who can achieve this miraculous threshold,’ quipped Rep. Tom McClintock”

Yes, it’s sarcasm, and coming from a Republican! Namely Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., who wrote a letter to the Republican holdouts who keep preventing the part from nominating a speaker of the House.

McClintock, in the letter, sarcastically addresses those Republican lawmakers who paved the way for McCarthy’s abrupt removal, an effort that was largely spearheaded by Rep. Matt Gaetz, Fla. Weeks later, House Republicans remain speakerless after ultra-conservative House Judiciary Chairman Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio, failed numerous times in his bid for the position. Jordan on Friday lost his third attempt to be elected House Speaker, also flopping at a secret ballot vote afterward, with only 194 votes to House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries’ 210.

“We should have been moved by your willingness to suffer ‘censure, suspension, or removal from the conference’ to enforce your personal preferences on the overwhelming majority of your unenlightened colleagues,” McClintock wrote in the letter.

“We truly don’t deserve you,” the letter continued. “But your sacrifice is not in vain. You have succeeded in replacing the outdated concept of majority rule with an exciting new standard that a speaker must be elated by 98.2 percent of the Republican conference. Someday, a messiah will be born unto us who can achieve this miraculous threshold, and on that day your judgment will be vindicated and you will be hailed as the geniuses that you are.”

Meanwhile, Trump:

“I said there’s only one person that can do it all the way. You know who that is? Jesus Christ,” Trump joked during a New Hampshire campaign stop on Monday. “If he came down and said, ‘I want to be speaker,’ he would do it.”


Any other items about religion lately? Well there’s this.

Joe.My.God, from Birmingham News, 24 Oct 2023: GOP Rep: God Told Me To Break Term Limits Promise

Alabama’s candidate for speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives suggested that God gave him clarity to break a campaign promise and run for a sixth term in office. Rep. Gary Palmer, R-Hoover, who was first elected in 2014, broke the promise when he announced he would seek a sixth term in office.

So… Republicans can break promises and just say that God told them to? Apparently.


I have a few more vaguely related items, in the twilight zone where religion blends with (conservative) politics.



Media Matters, 23 Oct 2023: Joe Biden’s brother repaid a loan in 2018. Fox News personalities are trying to spin it into a crime.

One of the most frequently broken of the commandments; exhibit A being Donald Trump.



AlterNet, Thom Hartmann, 23 Oct 2023: Opinion | How the fossil fuel industry pays for lies to school children

When a reporter asked him how he responded to the overwhelming evidence that the Earth is warming because of fossil fuels, McLeroy’s response was, “[C]onservatives like me think the evidence is a bunch of hooey.”

Fast-forward ten years to the 2019 textbook debate and McLeroy had moved on, but many members of the board appear to still hold his position that climate change, like evolution, is “hooey.”



Salon, Amanda Marcotte, 23 Oct 2023: Hey, right wing ghouls! Hands off the Scholastic book fair, subtitled “So much for ‘parents rights’ — now they’re preventing parents from buying books for their kids”

These people are trying to strip away parents rights, not protect them. The goal is forcing every other parent to adhere to their fundamentalist fantasy of a world where everyone is white, straight, and conformist.



Friendly Atheist, Hemant Mehta, 23 Oct 2023: Preacher who lied about military service plans to open “Christian Military Academy”, subtitled “MAGA cultist Mark Burns says his school will open in 2024”


NY Times, guest essay by Rich Lowry, 24 Oct 2023: How the Right’s Purity Tests Are Haunting the House G.O.P.

Lowry is editor in chief of the conservative magazine National Review.

One of his points is one I’ve made before: that Republicans like celebrities, and firebrands.

Even as Mr. Trump was something new in Republican politics, he was also something familiar. Even before his rise, Republicans were much more susceptible than Democrats to nonserious presidential candidates running to increase their profile for media gigs, book sales and the like. Mr. Trump was this type of candidate on a much larger scale and, again, happened to actually win.

One way to look at it is that the very successful model that the commentator Ann Coulter forged in the world of conservative media — generate controversy and never, ever apologize — came to be replicated by candidates and officeholders.

Vivek Ramaswamy and Representative Matt Gaetz are creatures of politics for the sake of notoriety. It creates entirely different incentives from the traditional approach: Stoking outrage is good, blowing things up is useful, and it never pays to get caught doing the responsible thing.

Lawry concludes,

The situation in the Republican House caucus has now developed into a sort of tribal war, where memories of real or alleged wrongs committed by the other side lead to more conflict and more bad feelings. So establishmentarians and relative moderates were willing to take down the speaker candidacy of the House Freedom Caucus co-founder Jim Jordan, rejecting his new argument that everyone had to come together for the good of the whole.

It may be that exhaustion sets in and Republicans eventually settle on a speaker, or it may be that the problem is unresolvable and they will have to find a way to govern under the speaker pro tempore, Patrick McHenry. Regardless, it’s become obvious over the last three weeks that no, not nearly enough Republicans want to play this game.

AlterNet’s Alex Henderson comments about Lowry’s piece here: How ‘tribal war’ and a ‘standard of impossible purity’ have rendered the GOP unable to govern: conservative


One more. About the notorious Christian college Liberty University.

NY Times, David French, 22 Oct 2023: The Worst Scandal in American Higher Education Isn’t in the Ivy League

I’d argue that the moral collapse at Liberty University in Virginia may well be the most consequential education scandal in the United States, not simply because the details themselves are shocking and appalling, but because Liberty’s misconduct both symbolizes and contributes to the crisis engulfing Christian America. It embodies a cultural and political approach that turns Christian theology on its head.

The university discouraged reporting of crime on campus in order to bolster its ratings. Many examples, from Jerry Falwell and the pool boy, to using its code of conduct *against* victims of sex abuse.

I know that there are people who will read the accounts above and be angry. They can’t believe a Christian institution could fail its students, the church and the nation so profoundly. Others will read and grow angry for a different reason. The scandals above are only a partial description of the problems at Liberty. They’ll actually think I let the campus off easy.

But there’s another group that will be angry as well — at yet another attack on an evangelical institution in a powerful secular newspaper. That anger, though, is a key part of the problem with the American church, and it’s a problem that no less a Christian figure than the apostle Paul identified almost 2,000 years ago.

And then he goes on about Paul in First Corinthians. And then about those in the church who see internal critique as a threat.

Not every Christian institution is rocked by scandal, and there are many Christian colleges that are healthy and vibrant, led by men and women of integrity. Yet as we witness systemic misconduct unfold at institution after institution after institution, often without any real accountability, we can understand that many members of the church have gotten Paul’s equation exactly backward. They are remarkably tolerant of even the most wayward, dishonest and cruel individuals and institutions in American Christianity. At the same time, they approach those outside with a degree of anger and ferocity that’s profoundly contributing to American polarization. It’s also perpetuating the corruption of the church.


And that’s enough for today.

This entry was posted in Politics, Psychology, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.