By Annie Laurie Gaylor
I couldn't help taking great delight in Jerry Falwell's shoot-himself-in-the-foot remarks over the September 11 terrorist attacks on our nation.
"I really believe," Falwell said on that now-famous "700 Club" appearance to a nodding Pat Robertson on Sept. 13, "that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians, who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who tried to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say you helped this happen."
We at the Freedom From Religion Foundation--although among those who try to "secularize America"--began to feel a little left out! But we were not to be totally forgotten by the "faith-heads," to borrow a Richard Dawkins term.
Following the announced proclamation of a "Day of Prayer and Remembrance" by President Bush, we began to get calls from reporters at daily newspapers around the country, asking whether we had a general statement.
We obligingly released one on September 13 [see next page], warning of the dangers of religious patriotism and a "God is on our side" mentality.
An obscure Wisconsin legislator subsequently issued a press release about our press release, calling us "unAmerican," promising to "chasten" us from the floor of the State Assembly (when it reconvenes), and urging everyone to phone or email us to "tell them to stop their assault on American values."
A Christian radio station heard around the country took up the cudgel, and soon indignant believers were clogging our email inboxes and tying up our phone lines.
I've always maintained if religion is good for anything--it is good for a laugh.
These emails reminded me, however, that if you've heard one "I'm praying for you," or one "You're going to hell," you've heard them all. I can testify that mindless religious mantras grow quickly tedious, especially when you hear them hours on end, phone call after phone call. Many of the women, most with Southern accents, sounded sweetly misguided; we started "taking messages" and thanking them for their prayers in equally syrupy tones. Several of the elderly women who phoned or emailed humorously expressed the wish that "God will soon reveal himself to Anne Gaylor." One even said she hoped God would expose himself to her (talk about a black collar crime!)--not a wish my mother shares.
Men were more belligerent. We received one threat, a signed email with the subject heading: "Mouth Shut." We don't usually print gratuitous profanity in this newspaper, but this, after all, comes from a "good Christian":
"You clueless motherfuckers. Keep your moralless comments to yourselves. It is MY right which is stated in the constitution to seek out you bastards. If there is any good thing to come of these events of the past week, I hope it is the EXTERMINATION of pricks like you!!! Read your fucking currency. In GOD we trust. If you really don't believe it, don't spend it and get the fuck out of here and start your own country."
A friendlier message from a woman started: "Honey, you had better change your ways. 'VENGENCE [sic] IS MINE SAYS THE LORD.' Even the people who bombed the WTC had a FORM OF FAITH." She lamely added: "Not that I approve of the way they expressed it by killing many inocent [sic] people."
My favorite was from the person who told me "you women need to go live in the Taliban and then open your mouths." Adding that I had the right to be "FREE from RELIGEON" (his spelling), he then asked me why I had to be "so STUPID."
But the people who count were very supportive. A leading scientist at Stanford reported that our statement is now posted on his lab wall. A prize-winning journalist thanked us for our "very intelligent statement which I'm sure will be almost universally ignored. People are too busy rushing to church and oiling up their machine guns," as she put it.
No sooner had that furor died down than my Sept. 24 appearance on Fox News Network's infamous "O'Reilly Factor" on the same subject started up the emails anew.
O'Reilly introduced me in tones of incredulity as among "those who think religion is actually to blame for the atrocity." When O'Reilly started out the interview by asking what would I be doing if I were Bush, I replied: "I wouldn't be praying, and I wouldn't be urging citizens to go to church and to pray and to worship, and to unite behind the very force that caused the problem in the first place, which is religion." (Thank you, Richard Dawkins.)
O'Reilly insisted it is "rogue people who are hiding behind that religion, not the theology itself" which is to blame.
"The Koran does say that you should kill infidels and unbelievers and blasphemers, and so does the Hebrew Bible. And Jesus said 'he came not to bring peace but a sword.' They all have the same root warrior deity who believes in scorched earth policies," I answered.
O'Reilly ignorantly denied the existence of this famous Jesus quote (Matt. 10:34), had me repeat it two more times, and heckled me about it. Then he told me: "You don't know anything about religion. How can you be against something that you know absolutely nothing about?"
In turn I asked him: "How could you deny that religion is the problem?"
Although incessantly interrupted, I did manage to add that if it weren't for religion, we wouldn't have had the bombings of the World Trade Center. "We wouldn't have had 19 young men willing to sacrifice themselves-- because what else motivated them, but their religious belief in an afterlife, and that they would be rewarded in paradise, that they would have their 72 virgins because they were dying as martyrs? This is a religion-fueled terrorism. There's no question about it."
Amazingly enough, O'Reilly admitted that the promise of a martyr's paradise played a role, but after lengthy speechifying insisted the bombings were strictly political.
"That is part of it," I agreed, "and we are also perceived as a secularist nation, and they have the same problem with our country that another fundamentalist has, and that's Jerry Falwell, who is the flip side of the coin of bin Laden. All the fundamentalists are the same."
Even O'Reilly would not defend Jerry Falwell.
"But you believe if we were a godless nation as you would have us, atheistic, that we wouldn't have any problem with anybody?" he jeered.
I quoted Pascal's line: "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction." I added: "We would not have had this history of warfare and bloodshed. More people have been killed in the name of a god than for any other reason." Thinking of John Lennon's song "Imagine," I added I did believe it would be a paradise on earth with no religion.
This elicited something I thought was long defunct--commie-baiting, and an additional assertion that the Nazis were "atheistic."
I took satisfaction in replying, "Hitler belonged to the same religion as I think you do. He was Catholic."
O'Reilly, stammering and stuttering indignantly, lectured me: "See, look, Miss Gaylor, number one you need to do, is go back and read the bible, I know you don't like it, and number two, get a history book."
Leaning toward the satellite hookup camera, I told him I have read the bible, "and I have read history, and Hitler was a Catholic and this is a fact that has been censored, but it is true."
(I love getting the last word.)
Given the viewership of that show, the fact that they put me on as the last guest of that seemingly endless hour, and that I was bullied mercilessly, I think it's astonishing that we received roughly the same number of contacts from "pro" as from "con" viewers. As a result, the Foundation has sent out material to several dozen highly motivated freethinkers around the world, and has received other media invitations.
One supportive viewer, "Daniel," went to all the trouble of transcribing the entire interview (excerpted above).
Typical was the emailer who wrote: "I am so happy to find out that an organization like yours exists."
Another emailer, "David," wrote rather poignantly:
"It was great to hear you say that religion is the root cause of many of the world's problems. I have made that exact speech to virtually everyone I know and I don't think I've ever had anyone agree with me. I can't tell you how relieved I was to hear you say those words. It is mind-boggling that only a very small percentage of the world's population can see something so obvious."
Echoed another "isolated atheist" viewer: "Imagine my elation when you popped up on the screen on Monday night's 'Factor.' "
A history professor from Great Britain emailed me a copy of his letter to O'Reilly: "Bill, wake up and blow the dust off your history book (if you have one)."
"The perennial excuse that terrorists (and the Crusaders, and the Inquisitors, etc.) are merely blasphemers perverting their faith is pitifully weak. The reasoning boils down to this: religious folks can't be evil, because if they're evil, they're not really religious. Logically speaking, a perfect circle," wrote a sympathetic "Jeremy," from Ohio.
Wrote another viewer:
"I have come to the conclusion that O'Reilly strives to advance the veiled cause of Catholicism. I almost fell out of my chair when the lady pointed out to Billy O. that he shared the same religious background as Herr Hitler."
One especially kind emailer even said: "O'Reilly would do well to invite you back on a regular basis. In fact, you should have your own program."
A Ph.D. emailed consolingly: "His general arrogance probably won you more converts than if he had been a responsible interviewer."
Perhaps, but it also encouraged the hateful tone taken by most of the "anti" responses. "Forget about fighting to abolish religion," wrote a self-described Catholic. "We should be fighting to abolish STUPID people and you are one of them." He then went on to chivalrously express the hope that I would not produce any children. (In his parents' case, it's too late.)
"Salman" wrote me (with unintentional humor): "You stupid athiests [sic] never learn. I don't think I've seen someone deserve hell so bad."
In fact, "William" informed me I am worse than the Taliban leader. "You will be placed on our soon to open website as 'the stupidest person in the world.' It was going to go to the Taliban leader, but he at least knows better." A number of the "antis" reiterated the view, which I find frightening, that unbelievers are worse, by virtue of their unbelief, than the religious terrorists whose actions killed more than 6,000 civilians in one day.
Bob Orloski, indicating an address of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, wrote:
"I can't help but wishing pain, grief and physical harm to you and your ilk! . . . david koresh and jim jones were of the same mold as you . . . you filthy, liberal, brain-dead communist! Wouldn't it be something if our president and military decided to rid the world of bottom-feeding terrorists as yourself. Terrorists don't have to carry guns . . . thier [sic] forked tongues can do just as much damage to the peace of our society as a plane into the side of a building killing thousands of innocent people!
"May you suffer horribly in your life, may your band of brainwashed followers turn against you someday, and may you die a miserable, lonely death . . . soon!"
I nearly preferred that threat to an email with this cloying imagery from "Shay":
"Jesus loves you so, so, so much. He wants to cradle you in His arms and shower His kisses and affection on you. . . . He loves you Annie. The Lord would not let me go to sleep tonight until I sent you this message."
I not only thought "godless commie"-baiting was in the past, but it's been at least 25 years since I heard any woman accused of having "penis envy." That is, until "Mark" emailed me this charming missive:
"From time to time, people need to be reminded that drooling Godless theophobic idiots with penis envy such as yourself still exist."
Talk about atavistic! "Hootch" told me: "You should give up your pen and take up your position as a woman, speak only when spoken to, stay pregnant and barefoot, do the chores and submit to your man whenever he feels the need for it. This is a mans [sic] world, let men run it."
Funny, that's what bin Laden, the Taliban, and Jerry Falwell are saying, too.
Annie Laurie Gaylor is editor of Freethought Today and 'Women Without Superstition: No Gods--No Masters: The Collected Writings of 19th & 20th Century Women Freethinkers.' She also is the author of a book about bible sexism, 'Woe to the Women: The Bible Tells Me So.'