Kristen received $300 for her essay.
As I watched the recent zombie apocalypse movie “World War Z,” an uneasy feeling crept over me. The highly contagious zombie infection turns people into single-minded predators who are unable to think and reason.
Zombies are dangerous and terrifying because of their mindlessness. It is futile to try to reason with them because they are feral creatures, entirely focused on infecting other people. What disturbed me most was not the violence of the movie, but rather the anxious realization that a zombie epidemic can be viewed as a subtle satiric commentary on religious fanaticism, which is as dangerous as a zombie plague.
Both destroy people’s higher cognitive powers and ability to question authority. Both demand blind obedience, often turning followers into senseless automatons. Once “zombified,” they don’t care much about anything except converting others and increasing their growing hordes.
Watching the characters in the movie become ever more desperate in their efforts to avoid the zombie infection, I too was wondering, how can we avoid real-life epidemics of religious fanaticism?
The U.S. has a secular government, one that is legally bound to protect the “wall of separation between church and state.” More Americans than ever report that they have no religious affiliation and the percentage of U.S. Christians, while still a majority, diminishes steadily.
Yet even as our culture and government teem with signs of religious diversity, there exists a widespread belief that the U.S. is a Christian nation. Concurrent with this idea is the belief that the U.S. government should support Christianity to the exclusion of other religions. These beliefs work in tandem to produce ignorant prejudice in mild cases, and violent fanaticism in the extreme.
Culturally, legally and historically, the U.S. is not a Christian nation. The founders deliberately left religion out of the Constitution, and the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli further reinforced America’s secularism with the statement, “The Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”
Religious leaders often equate Christianity with patriotism and secularism with heathenism. The very word “secular” has taken on malignant connotations with some religious leaders. Pat Robertson said, “The truth is, the secular world isn’t too enamored with Jesus.” Jerry Falwell said that the 9/11 attacks were brought on by “all of them who have tried to secularize America.”
Religion conflates secularism and “godlessness” when, in reality, secularism benignly connotes a neutral separation from religion. By denigrating secularism, religious leaders teach their followers to view the separation of government and church as an ungodly abomination.
Spreading like a zombie virus through the biosphere, these misguided beliefs propagate the idea that our country should be (even) more Christian and that our government should only uphold Christianity. Medieval, Old World governments did this, and the results were sectarian violence, torture for those with questionable religious beliefs and rampant abuses of power by clerics and kings.
We are still vulnerable to the religious brainwashing that spews Christian supremacy from the pulpit and creates the illusion that Christianity is all about loving-kindness and forgiveness. Raised in a highly Christian household, I experienced firsthand the subtle ways in which religion breeds fear, sheep-minded acceptance and a sense of righteous superiority.
When I began to question my own religious beliefs, I felt like a traitor to God and my family, as if I were taking an axe to the root of my community and very existence (since God Himself ordained my birth). But in reality, what I discovered was that I had been betrayed by a millennia-old methodology that numbed my intellect and sabotaged my reason. No one ever told me that I could say no to religion, so for years I was blind to other possibilities.
Religion uses fear and shame to create blinders. The belief that the U.S. is or should be a Christian nation promotes dangerous radicalism and supremacist ideology. This deplorable indoctrination starts at a young age as Sunday school teachers inundate children with the cheery images of Christ’s flagellation and crucifixion.
Viruses work most effectively on those who are ill of body, whereas religion packs a punch on those who are weak of logic. Churches target the young, the brokenhearted and the dying because those vulnerable people are most susceptible to the emotional pull of religion’s outlandish premises and promises.
There have been thousands of gods and religions over the millennia, and the vast majority of them are long forgotten. Richard Dawkins says, “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”
Fanatics refuse to take that last step. One of my favorite bumper stickers reads, “God, please save me from your followers.” When the zombies try to tear down the barricade that separates church and government, our antidotes must be rational thinking and commitment to the true meaning of secularism.
Armed with these, we can protect ourselves from the infection.
Kristen Webster, 30, was born in Lynchburg, Va., and lives in Seattle. She earned a B.A. in English at the University of Virginia and an M.Ed. in community counseling from the College of William & Mary. She’s now pursuing a B.S. in computer science and systems at the University of Washington-Tacoma. Her long-term goal is to integrate the disciplines of literature, psychology and computers in new ways.