Epistolary Adventures In The Bible Belt by Gary Sloan (March 2000)

For ten years, I have written atheistic letters to the Shreveport Times and the Monroe News-Star, the largest newspapers in north Louisiana. In these missives, I have tried to explain why some educated people choose to be atheists. I have explored a number of issues commonly addressed in freethought publications. I have pointed out fallacies in traditional “proofs” for the existence of God: First Cause, Prime Mover, Design, Natural Law, Moral, and others.

I have explained why atheists think an appeal to faith is an insufficient warrant for belief. In one letter, I offered a reformulation of Tertullian’s credo quia absurdum. I suggested absurdum est absurdo credere (“It is ridiculous to believe when belief is absurd”). I have written extensively on the Bible, especially on the Biblical Jesus, including expositions on George Wells’ thesis that no historical prototype existed for the Biblical figure who was a late first-century fabrication of anonymous authors writing for diverse audiences with diverse purposes. Here are typical excerpts from my letters, of which I have written about 75: “Unlike Yahveh, the Old Testament deity, Jesus doesn’t wipe out whole villages, including cattle, sheep, oxen, fowl, and she-asses.

He isn’t so indulgent. He doesn’t give reprobates the solace of eternal death: He tortures them forever.” “Belief in God is scarcely the only brake on socially irresponsible conduct. People are checked by social codes, communal opinion, and secular law. Even for theists, fear of public humiliation is often stronger than fear of God. No educated atheist believes everything is permissible.” “Freethinkers disbelieve in God not because they are cantankerous, arrogant, or pernicious, but because they find no compelling evidence to support the belief. Like Thomas Huxley, freethinkers believe it is immoral to maintain ‘that there are propositions which men ought to believe without logically satisfactory evidence and that reprobation ought to attach’ to disbelief.”

“Some of the musty arguments for the existence of God still rear their hoary heads. Design, for example. Creationists contend that complex organs like eyes and wings could not evolve from rudimentary precursors, but had to be created fully formed. The conviction betrays an impoverished imagination, unable to appreciate the developmental effects of minute, incremental organic modifications occurring over millions of years. Richard Dawkins’ books provide corrective lenses for such myopia.” I began writing anti-theistic letters because no one else was, even though the editorial pages had long been saturated with pro-Christian letters, many from a right-wing, fundamentalist perspective.

I had originally thought to edify uninformed readers about a range of academic subjects, but, judging by the published responses, few readers wanted what I was selling. If anyone was edified, it was I. While I fecklessly assailed ears fortified against my views, readers gave me an earful of theirs.

In the 300 or so written responses to my letters, the ad hominem retort has flourished like a perennial weed. Often have I been advised to peruse Psalms 14:1: “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ ” I have been christened with such unendearing epithets as Satan, anti-Christ, Marx, Lenin, Mao, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Attila the Hun, “Madelyn O’Hara,” William Buckley, Jr.–the Firing Line host, not from any political conservatism on my part (that would have ingratiated me to many locals), but because of my putative predilection for sesquipedalian diction. I have also been nicknamed after diminutive species: mouse, minnow, housefly, spider, ant, flea, tick, chigger.

Beetlejuice was a refreshing change: “Gary Sloan. Gary Sloan. Gary Sloan. Say his name three times and just like Beetlejuice he appears.” Although in my letters I’ve never tried to be witty, I have been the cause of wit in others. I’ve been called an intellectual and a pseudo-intellectual, and I don’t know which is worse: “Sloan is an intellectual but he is also a bubble and a half off.” “Unlike Sloan, I’m no summa cum laude. When I graduated, I was just a simple ‘thank you laude.’ ” “Sloan says Jesus is mean, a liar, a beggar, and a thief. In his vast wisdom, he has confused Jesus with Clinton.” “Professor Sloan has a BDIP degree (bombastic, doctrinaire, intolerant, and predictable).”

Some respondents have unwittingly disclosed their paucity of wit: “Sloan likes to dig up uncommonly used words like ‘omnipresent’ and ‘omnipotent.’ ” “It’s like he’s trying to convert the very buckle of the Bible Belt by quoting somebody named Dawkins and somebody else named Hawking.” One local raconteur spun a parable to suggest that my kind should be locked up.

He gave short shrift to the principle that one should hate the sin, but love the sinner: “I had a cousin down in Sabine Parish who stole a horse and rode it over to Lufkin, Texas, and sold it. When the marshall at Zwolle found out that my cousin stole the horse he went out to the farm. But he didn’t arrest the sin. He arrested my cousin and put him in jail.” Many have assured uneasy readers that my foot will slide in due time: “I’ll pray for Sloan, but not pray that I end up where he’s heading.” “He’ll be hot and thirsty for a long, long time.” “I shudder to think what awaits the Enemy of God from Ruston [my hometown] and documents it in the newspapers.”

“It looks like Sloan is going for the whole enchilada–death, followed by judgment, humiliation, condemnation, then thrown into the bottomless pit by an archangel with an attitude, to swim around in a burning lake of fire with his master, the devil, for a long time.” A few think I might still make the cut: “God has shown me that you, sir, will in time accept Jesus as your savior and stop disgracing him.” “Mr. Sloan, you remind me so much of Saul. I believe God is going to use you the way he did Saul.” On my answering machine, a Pentecostal woman left a message in tongues. After the last indecipherable morpheme, she said: “Thank you, sweet Jesus.” A few days later she called to tell me (in English) I would most certainly be saved. Several churches have made me their project:

“Gary, next Sunday at 10 a.m. we will be praying that the Holy Spirit will reach out to Gary Sloan and that he will receive a sign by Wednesday, June 14th, at 6 p.m.”

If the sign appeared, I missed it. A large Baptist church (Six Flags Over Jesus, one wag called it) blazoned a pithy homily on a marquee that faces a thoroughfare: “Gary, God is real, and he loves you dearly.” No one from the church bothered to drop by, write, or call. Lest one assume my views are uncongenial only to ministers and rubes, I should point out that my epistolary adversaries include lawyers, bankers, journalists, physicians, merchants, and university professors and administrators. Eleven professors signed a published letter to assure anxious parents that “there are many Christian faculty members in this university who do not share Dr. Sloan’s philosophy.” Among the recommendations that the newspapers stop running my letters, one of the most vituperative was from a distinguished professor of business and administration:

“Sloan’s real intent is to attack, to provoke, to ridicule, to incite, to mock. His letters reveal a mean-spirited self-absorption that is becoming dangerous.

They are the moral equivalent of yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theater. It is time for the News-Star to suspend publication of Sloan’s clever but ill-intentioned letters. They inflate his self-importance at considerable expense to the common good.” A former editorial page editor refused to print my responses to criticism of me, though he printed critics’ responses to my criticism. When I publicly pointed out the double standard, he wrote a column defending himself: “Sloan is right, you know. His turning upon those who criticized his deep emotional aversion to worship was prevented. It just seemed too, too sadistic on my part to do otherwise. I think of the Bible Belt as people who are proud to give their allegiance to a higher spiritual power rather than follow the unwashed rudiments of man.” In more than one town, I am persona non grata. A Ruston resident wrote to the Monroe paper: “I’m sure the good people of Monroe realize most Ruston people don’t share Gary Sloan’s opinions. You can have him if you want him.”

The sequel was swift: “No, thanks.” Along with a clipping of his response to one of my letters, a Shreveport resident included a note with a dime taped to it. The note read: “Send a copy to a friend–if you have one.” My wife has been asked more than once how she can stand to be married to such a vile creature. I have received only one published letter of support. It came from one of my wife’s undergraduates: “Hurrah for Gary Sloan! I hope he runs for President!”

The effervescent student was, I surmised, bucking for an A. I said earlier that I have been edified by my epistolary misadventures. I have learned that many Christians are far less reasonable and much more spiteful than I would have thought ten years ago. I have also learned that when one persists in flouting communal values, one had better be prepared to go it alone.

To devote more time to writing and thinking, Gary Sloan recently took an early retirement from Louisiana Tech University, where he was George Anding professor of English. Besides his letters, Sloan has published about 50 articles on literature and rhetoric in such academic journals as College English, College Composition and Communication, English Journal, Studies in the Novel, Studies in Short Fiction, Journal of the Short Story in English, Explicator, RE Arts & Letters, and Victorian Newsletter. Sloan’s wife teaches Shakespeare at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. They have three children, all reasonably well-adjusted atheists Page maintained by Dan Barker and hosted by the Internet Infidels.

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