Thursday, September 22, 2005

The Christian Cancer Metastasizes

If you think George W. Bush, Tom DeLay, Bill Frist, Rick Santorum, Sam Brownback and their buddies are bad, just wait.

The latest Chronicle of Higher Education (a really good publication the mainstream media ought to plunder from more often) has a really important piece by Thomas Bartlett on the next generation of anti-American Christians. It shows us that Bush, et. al.’s virulent strain of Christianity has evolved several traits that will aid in defense and spread of the virus. First, it’s inoculating future carriers. Second, it’s programming those carriers with traits that will serve to propagate and defend the virus in the future. (Yes, I know I’m swapping the carcinogenic metaphor of my headline for a viral one. Indulge me!)

It’s important to think in viral terms about this for several reasons: It helps us predict its patterns of growth and attack and, frightening though it may be, it makes clear just how quickly and thoroughly we should expect it to spread.


In order for a virus to succeed, it has to develop resistance to anything that threatens its survival. In the case of Christianity (and any faith), the primary threat is reason. The need to oppose reason’s advances (or avoid conflict with it) is at the root of virtually every substantive theological shift. When religions pursue the mainstream (a la Vatican II) it is to make themselves appear in concert with reason (like a virus camouflaging itself from a host’s white blood cells). When religions turn militant and fundamentalist it’s to confront and challenge reason’s threat. This notion of immunologically-based theology explains why so many religions evolved tenets that promote indoctrinating the young: The young have not yet developed the immune systems of cognition and ratiocination. If a religion advocated waiting until children were 21 to make itself and its tenets known to them, it would die in a generation. Natural selection ensures that only youth-indoctrinating religions survive.

So, think of religion (in this case, the North American strain of the Christianity fundamentalis virus) in viral terms. And consider reason (which encompasses both the internal phenomenon of logic and its empirical manifestation, science) as the cure. When religion evolves (i.e., mutates in a way that promotes either survival or spread) it does so in response to threats from the cure, or to exploit weaknesses of the cure.

In the excerpts below from the Chronicle piece, you’ll see this dynamic play out. But first, a quick word about epidemiology, or the nature and rate of viral spread:


We’re witnessing in the United States right now the latest, arguably greatest metastasization ever of North American Christianity fundamentalis. (I know, I’m mixing the metaphors again. Let’s stipulate that when I say, “metastasization,” I mean, “the spread of viral elements through a social body in the same way cancer cells spread through an animal’s body.”) How does a religion virus spread? Only two ways: Reproduction and transmission. To aid reproduction of itself, virtually all religious viruses promote reproduction of its carriers (i.e., sex) within parameters defined by the religion (i.e., marriage). Virtually all religious viruses also promote transmission (i.e., proselytization) of the virus from carriers to non-carriers. How does this occur? Marketing: Everything from preaching to wearing Kaballah bracelets; whatever spreads the word.

So, why is Christianity fundamentalis metastasizing? Because it has evolved mechanisms that combine new types of immunity with aggressive new modes of transmission. When you get a virus that’s immune (or, at least, highly resistant) to existing, widely available forms of treatment (i.e., schools and books) and also develops highly efficient, effective forms of transmission, what do you get? An epidemic.

Now, let’s get to the Chronicle piece, which shows us how the virus has developed and combined the necessary traits to begin an epidemic.

Christian students gather and prepare to defend their beliefs
(Available in full here for five days after the date of this post)
Manitou Springs, Colo.
...Each summer more than 1,200 [Christian teenagers] come from around the country to attend a two-week workshop on how to defend their faith during college. They listen to lectures on creationism versus evolution, abortion, homosexuality, Christianity and the media, euthanasia, and postmodernism, among other topics. … On an average day, students sit through six hours of classes…
Two important features right off the bat. We’re talking about teenagers (young, with yet-to-develop-fully ratiocination skills) and we’re talking about training specifically, overtly designed to inoculate carriers against the threat posed by college (i.e., education).

Spend a couple of days at the workshop and it becomes clear that, for many of these students, college is fraught with peril. There is the pressure to party, to drink, to have sex.
Hedonism’s greatest threat is not to the supposedly moral components of the religion virus. Hedonism poses a threat to the virus because its rewards – and the fact that negative consequences often fall short of those predicted by the virus – can trigger questions (i.e., thought) about the religion, specifically about its misuse of moral language to control individuals in pursuit of society-wide goals. In other words, sex and booze can kill you, but if you indulge in them with some thought you can often, easily avoid the “Reefer Madness”-style hells predicted by Christianity fundamentalis.

There is also the subtle pressure to conform to a non-Christian worldview. There are biology courses that ask students to accept evolution, which workshop organizers and most of the students reject as untrue and ungodly. There are literature courses that see any text, including the Bible, as open to multiple interpretations. And there are philosophy classes that view absolute truth as nothing more than an illusion.
Again, the threat here is not about conformity to a non-Christian worldview (there are, after all, Christian sects that accept biology, Biblical interpretation and even post-modernism/deconstructionism). The threat here is thought itself. Accepting evolution means considering empirical evidence and considering it rationally. Both processes are anathema to our virus. Interpretation by definition requires thought. Ironically, I happen to think that post-modernism/deconstructionism – that school of thought so assailed by the right and the Christian right – is actually the least hostile to our virus (widespread disbelief in absolute truth led Americans to justify neglecting fact, documentation and reason at the voting booths in 2000 and 2004) – but that’s a separate discussion.

Professors are often portrayed not as keepers of knowledge, but as clever propagandists determined to undermine the beliefs of gullible Christians. "The dirty little secret of education is that our young people are being indoctrinated into another faith, but they're not told that," says the Rev. David Noebel, the president and founder of Summit Ministries, which runs the workshop. "They're being told that secular humanism is somehow agenda-free and value-neutral when it is not."
The deeply epidemiological nature of this conflict starts to pop out at you after a while, right? The Reverend Noebel sees the conflict in terms of an exterior entity intent on penetrating cell walls and inserting its own ideological DNA in place of his religion’s DNA.

What this means for Christian students, he says, is simple: "Either they're going to get serious about their faith, or they're going to lose it."
In Darwinian terms: Survival of the fittest.

When David Noebel started Summit Ministries in 1962, the group's focus was on communism...He also wrote books and pamphlets warning of the dual threats of communism and rock 'n' roll. One of those books, Communism, Hypnotism, and the Beatles, has become an underground classic among memorabilia collectors. Its cover features the disembodied heads of the Fab Four floating beneath an ominous-looking hammer and sickle.
In other words, as the threats to religion have evolved, so has its response. It now has new defense mechanisms. It now recognizes other strains as threats. Past threats have either died off (Soviet-style communism) or been neutralized (rock music) by other viruses (recording-industry executives).

Even after more than 40 years, the 69-year-old minister and author seems to revel in the company of his young students. He calls them "Tiger" and they call him "Doc." As it happens, Mr. Noebel did not finish his Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, though his rapid-fire references to philosophers and theologians tend to impress listeners. "Did you know he used to read a book a day?" one teenager asks, her voice full of awe.…
At some point, the carrier David Noebel found -- maybe even accidentally -- that when he coated his cell wall with a deceptive membrane (one that mimics a doctorate) he more easily penetrated other cells (those with lower resistance to the element known as PhD than to the element known as Mr). Because viruses stick with behaviors and traits that improve their spread, he kept “Doc.”

On a recent Thursday, the guest lecture was delivered by Dave and Mary Jo Nutting, a husband-and-wife team who founded the Alpha Omega Institute, which is devoted to "exposing the fallacies of evolutionary worldviews and defending the accuracy of the Bible," according to its Web site. They have put together an entertaining two-hour PowerPoint presentation to promote creationism. In one sequence, Mr. Nutting shows a cartoon of a man standing next to a pile of lumber covered with dynamite. The cartoon man lights the fuse and -- boom! -- suddenly the lumber is gone and in its place is a lovely house. "That, folks, is evolution," Mr. Nutting says…
He may be Nutting, but he’s right. His explanation is evolution in action, it's an explanation that has evolved to counter evolution itself. Simple explanations beat complicated ones almost every time (if you cut me with Occam’s Razor, do I not bleed?) – just as a small needle penetrates the skin easier than a thick one does. We comprehend, and can defend, simpler concepts better and easier than we can complex ones – regardless of their truth value! If you’re a parent who’s ever skimped on an explanation for your kid, you know what I mean. That’s why religions have evolved explanations that are not just simple, but explanations that are deceptively simple and, most importantly, explanations that are deceptively simple in ways that require particularly complex rebuttals. The evolutionary advantage of this is that it raises the bar for successful challenges to the virus. Why does Nutting’s folksy, compelling, intuitive example amount to, well, nutting? Well, you can start with the initial flaw in his analogy: Explosion creates iteration of an existing type of structure (house) ≠ evolution creates iteration of a new structure (humanity). And if you want to get more complicated than that, I recommend you read The Blind Watchmaker (yes, it’s tough going – that’s what Christianity fundamentalis relies on!)

About half of Summit's expenses are covered by student fees. The other half comes from the 6,000 or so donors who consistently support the program. It doesn't seem to hurt fund raising that the workshop has been endorsed by some of the most prominent evangelical leaders in the country, including Tim LaHaye, co-author of the extraordinarily successful Left Behind book series, and James Dobson, president of Focus on the Family, located in Colorado Springs, just a few minutes from Summit's headquarters.
In other words, in the free market that they espouse, they have yet to evolve sufficiently well to survive on their own. So, they’ve evolved several compensating mechanisms. First, they only advocate free markets in ways that benefit them (or hurt their threats). Second, they’ve evolved parasitic (or, more accurately, symbiotic) relationships with particularly powerful carriers of the virus. And they continue to thrive and spread because they have evolved the trait of social cooperation, and, literally, insulation from hostile environments (i.e., cities, public schools, Broadway, etc.).
Mr. Dobson, who sent his son, Ryan, through the program, writes that Summit helps teenagers "suddenly understand the civil war we have described and what it means to them personally."
Note the recurring use of the word “war.” This is, to them, an elemental, primal struggle for survival (and they’re right).

When a professor or fellow student asserts something that runs contrary to Christianity, Mr. Thomas intends to speak up.
Why? Who hasn’t had a professor that said something dumb? Is it really so important to voice disagreement every time it occurs? Why? A few reasons: One, it’s an inevitable side effect of the virus's fundamentalism. Two, it serves to proselytize other students. Three, it tends to repress the tendency of the threat (professors) to utilize their threatening traits (reason).

And now, thanks to the workshop, he knows what to say. "Without Summit, I would have been very much unprepared," he says.

That's how Sarah Keyes feels, too. Ms. Keyes, a sophomore at Columbia University, came to Summit before her freshman year and decided to return this summer "just to reaffirm what I learned." As part of its well-known core curriculum, Columbia undergraduates study the Bible not as divinely inspired scripture, but as literature. For Ms. Keyes this was distressing. But, she says, Summit taught her that the Bible is "historically accurate," and this knowledge kept her from believing that it belonged on the same plane as Homer or Aeschylus. "It equipped me to think through things and not accept everything I was told," she says.
One of the genius elements of this strain (and many good thought viruses) is its subversion and co-option of language (the medium for the cure, after all). When Sarah says she thinks things through, she genuinely believes it. She’s come to consider mental activity about a particular subject as equivalent to thinking about that subject. Genuine “thinking through,” ratiocination, would require application of logical scrutiny to her faith. Because her faith is a matter of faith, it must by definition eventually come into conflict with reason. If her alleged thinking never yields that result (and some of the Christians I respect most are those who acknowledge the inherently unrational nature of faith) then she’s not really thinking. (And, ironically, she gets into Columbia because academia values diversity of thought, and hasn't yet recognized that Christianity fundamentalis isn't thought).

(Quick parable: When I took Logic I in college, I had a proof to do using symbolic logic. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t figure out how to prove it. Rather than turn in a non-proof for a non-grade, I did the next-best (or worst, if you want to get all ethical on me) thing: I hid my failure. I came up with a proof that I knew was flawed. But I built my proof in such a way that the flaw was limited to a single step, in what superficially appeared to be, well, I guess you’d call it a sub-routine. The result? The entire argument was wrong, the entire thought process was a sham. But it looked – even under some degree of scrutiny – like a substantive, thoughtful proof with, maybe, one little error along the way. That’s what these students don’t realize that they’re learning: False methodologies of rebutting reality and logic -- while appearing not just to embrace them, but to utilize them – without ever even understanding what they’re doing. Conscious carriers of Christianity fundamentalis, they are unwitting carriers of its defense mechanisms, even when those mechanisms are directed at the carriers themselves).

Still, she experienced plenty of challenges to her faith, and she felt like a second trip to Summit was necessary. "There were several times when I felt professors were trying to undermine my faith, though perhaps not intentionally," Ms. Keyes says…
The booster shot.

The workshop has only one session devoted to homosexuality, but the topic seems to come up frequently. Mr. Noebel contends that gay and lesbian organizations wield more power than any other group on college campuses.
Perhaps “Doc” Noebel has confused gay student groups with the varsity football team. In fairness, an easy mistake.

Students are encouraged not only to take sides on controversial issues like abortion, but also to evangelize whenever possible during college. Some of the more fearless ones even fan out into Manitou Springs to attempt to convert locals and tourists. This is not always appreciated. They are no longer welcome at a certain New Age gift store, and one local innkeeper says students "come up to you and say awful things about how you're going to hell." …
Of course they’re encouraged. Why shouldn’t they be? If you thought I were going to hell, wouldn’t you be morally obligated to do everything you could to save me? Frankly, a Christian who believes only the saved go to heaven and then doesn’t proselytize the hell out of us, comes lower on the moral scale than do the proselytizers. That’s why belief in hell, and belief in belief itself as the key to heaven, is such a powerful viral trait. Of all the cults in the world, why do so few of them say, “Join us and go to heaven! Or don’t join us, but go to heaven anyway! It’s all the same!” Because that trait has no transmissive value. Which means the trait dies off. The religions that evolve the trait of offering advantages – specifically, undisproveable survival advantages – tend, not surprisingly, to survive the Darwinian world of competitive theology.

Politics and theology mix in a none-too-subtle manner at Summit. In the lobby of the main building hangs a framed drawing of Ronald Reagan. Among some students the words "liberal" and "atheist" are used as synonyms. Mr. Noebel's views on a range of issues, including free-market capitalism (he's in favor of it) and environmentalism (he seems to be against it), slip out during lectures...he does believe in blending politics and religion. In his book, The Battle for Truth, he argues that "the state was established to administer God's justice" and encourages Christians to run for political office. "If the people rejoice when the righteous rule (Proverbs 29:2), the righteous need to rule," he writes…
Now we get to the epidemic. The body in which Christianity fundamentalis wants to spread is the body politic. It has spread, essentially, as far as it can within the body’s unessential organs (the isolated, gated communities; survivalists; home-schoolers) and it’s now bumping up against the essential organs – our heart, brains and circulatory system – and the organs that, therefore, enjoy the greatest defenses.

The only way to continue promoting growth is to turn the body’s organs into organs of transmission. And the two organs of transmission in America are politics and media. Both of them, if you haven’t noticed, are under assault. Furthermore, Christianity fundamentalis has devoted untold manhours and millions of Mammon dollars to the task of figuring out and implementing the most effective methods of transmission.

Make no mistake, this phenomenon is not a side effect of a benign attempt to spread happy Jesus-ness. The entire, sole point of everything “Doc” Noebel and other carriers do is specifically, consciously, overtly to wage, in their own words, a “war” (a metaphorically biological conflict) in which soldiers must put on armor and brandish their weapons. Sorry to switch hackneyed metaphors on you again, but they have spent millions on munitions research and defense. They have recruited more successfully than has the actual United States military. And they have spent centuries refining their tactics.

They churn out carrier/soldiers in their home schools, they immunize them against the intellectual rigor of college, they train them at their own law schools and then feed them into the brachia of our government. They have cultivated our laxity, thrived in the neglect of our condescension. In Bush, DeLay, Brownback, et. al, we’ve seen only a minor outbreak, a slight incidence of symptoms. In the next generation, we’ll start to see what happens now that the virus is no longer limited to isolated iterations. We’ll see what happens when the virus gains a sufficient number of carriers not to overwhelm the entire body, but only that number necessary to overwhelm the organs that control the body and sustain it. That's true of every infected patient. Even when it’s already too late to save them.

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