The Twilight Zone (December 1997)

This speech was delivered on Dec. 6, 1997, at the twentieth annual convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Tampa, Florida. The speaker is editor-in-chief of the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia.

A newspaper editor scans hundreds of reports from around the world every day–and sometimes I think I’m in The Twilight Zone. Religious items on the news wires can make you wonder if you’ve crossed a boundary into unreality.
I read about Muslim fanatics in Algeria who shoot high school girls in the face because they aren’t wearing veils, or cut the throats of professors who teach boys and girls in the same class–all in the name of Allah the Merciful, the fount of love and kindness. Astounding! Insanity is coming through my desktop terminal.

I read about Solar Temple members who kill themselves and their children, thinking they’ll magically travel to a planet named Sirius (not the star Sirius)–and I think: The human mind must have a defect, a short-circuit in the “logic board.”

I read about Sikh militants in Punjab who want to break away from Hindu India to create a theocracy called Khalistan, “The Land of the Pure.” So they machine-gun Hindu weddings and plant bombs in Hindu movie theaters. Good grief–is this what’s “pure”?

I read about hundreds of American priests and evangelists who molest children. (If you doubt that there are hundreds of them, count the “black-collar crimes” in Freethought Today.) The whole world says religion makes people good–and priests and evangelists have more religion than anyone else–so something doesn’t add up.

Many other religious news reports show madness. Here are items I plucked off the wires in the past few months:

Nov. 17–Islamic zealots who want to create a theocracy in Egypt massacred 58 tourists visiting the ancient tombs of the Nile Valley.

Mid-November–Teenage believers at Maranatha Church in St. Albans, West Virginia, suffered uncontrollable twitching and jerking for weeks after revival sessions.

Nov. 12–Two more Muslim terrorists were convicted of bombing New York’s World Trade Center, an attack which they hoped would topple the twin towers and kill a quarter-million Americans.

Nov. 3–Three “Phineas Priests” who bombed abortion clinics and robbed banks for their white supremacy cause drew life prison terms in Spokane, Wash. One of them read the Bible aloud for 35 minutes in the courtroom, and called the court a “temple of Satan.”

Oct. 23–The Rev. Michael Flippo of West Virginia was convicted of smashing his wife to death with a stick of firewood.

Oct. 16–The Rev. Andras Pandy, a Belgian minister and religion teacher, was charged with murdering five family members and sexually molesting his daughters.

Sept. 22–Born-again businessman John Bennett of Pennsylvania, who created an investment foundation to “do God’s work,” was sentenced to 12 years in prison for swindling churches and charities out of $135 million.

Sept. 4–Three more Muslim suicide bombers killed themselves and unsuspecting Jews in a Jerusalem pedestrian mall.

Mid-August–Eight people were beaten to death in Senegal, Africa, because neighbors said they were witches who touched men and made their penises shrink.

July 16–In Lahore, Pakistan, Shi’ite killers on motorcycles gunned down four members of a rival Sunni group, the Guardians of Friends of the Prophet. That made 150 Sunni-Shi’ite killings in Pakistan so far this year.

July 15–An 18-year-old Catholic girl, asleep at the Belfast home of her Protestant boyfriend, was killed by four shots–apparently a Protestant assassination in retaliation for several Ulster murders by Catholic militants.

July 11–The leader of America’s fourth-largest church, the National Baptist Convention, was exposed for living like a maharaja on church money, and filching some for his lovers–yet his followers yelled “amen” and vowed undying support for him.

June 26–In Japan, another top leader of the Supreme Truth sect pleaded guilty to planting nerve gas in Tokyo’s subway in the 1995 attack that killed a dozen people and sickened 5,000.

June 16–Two Orthodox rabbis in Brooklyn were charged with “laundering” $1.75 million in drug profits through the bank accounts of their synagogue and seminary.

June 10–A fundamentalist couple at Altoona, Pa., went to prison because they let their diabetic daughter die while they prayed over her, refusing to give her insulin. Two years earlier, they similarly let their 8-year-old son die of an ear infection.

June 10–Federal agents announced that a shadowy group called the “Army of God” is suspected of two Atlanta bombings: at an abortion clinic and a gay nightclub.

June 6–A French Muslim holy man who killed a teenage girl while trying to “exorcise demons” from her was sentenced to seven years in prison.

May 31–A fundamentalist preacher in Arkansas was sentenced to 60 years in prison for raping three church school girls.

May 16–An ardent Jew in New Jersey drew two life terms because he killed his son and daughter, rather than let them be raised as non-Jews.

May 3–In Indonesia, a “sorcerer” who charged women money to cast spells on their husbands and boyfriends confessed that he had murdered 42 of the women.

March 29–Hindu troops killed 22 Muslim militants who were holed up near Kashmir’s holiest shrine, a mosque that houses a sacred whisker from Muhammad’s beard.

March 28–Taliban religious zealots in Afghanistan stoned a woman to death for being in the company of a man who wasn’t a relative.

And, of course, you all remember the biggest religious news story of 1997:

March 26–Thirty-nine members of the Heaven’s Gate sect committed suicide, thinking they could “shed their containers” and travel to a UFO behind the Hale-Bopp comet.

(Tonight you’ll hear from astronomer Alan Hale, co-discoverer of the comet. He, too, must think he’s in The Twilight Zone. He made an intelligent scientific achievement–then loonies used it as the basis for a quacko self-massacre.)

Actually, there are hundreds of religious horrors like the ones I recited. I put some of them on my Internet web site, to provide a reference source for skeptics. But I didn’t read any more today, because they sound like an endless litany. It’s the same madness, over and over and over.

It galls me that these holy horrors are mostly ignored by educated Western people. Hardly anyone speaks out and says: religion can breed insanity. Our society simply shrugs and pays no attention.

For example, on the night before Princess Diana’s funeral, Muslim fanatics with hatchets went into an Algerian village and chopped 87 people to death. Most American newspapers–including mine–gave it a small mention on an obscure page, while filling all the major pages with reams about the celebrity princess. When I griped to my news chiefs about this imbalance, they replied: “Well, everyone wants to read about Di, but nobody cares what happens in Algerian villages.” Grudgingly, I had to admit that there’s little news in another Algerian religious massacre, because they occur every week.

In fact, religious horrors have been happening for as far back as history records. Holy wars, human sacrifices, inquisitions, pogroms, witch hunts, sectarian hostilities, Jonestown, Waco, the World Trade Center bombing, you name it–all these are a major part of the story of religion. But the world rarely connects belief and butchery. Few leaders ever mention it. I gathered the whole record into my first book, Holy Horrors (which, as far as I can learn, was the only book ever written on the full spectrum of religious evils)–but society mostly ignored that, too.

There’s a mindless, stupid, irrational quality to these outrages. I lived through one, in the heart of Appalachia’s Bible Belt, and saw it first-hand. I’ll tell you the story, because it sheds light on the whole problem:

The great West Virginia uprising against “godless textbooks” flared in 1974, in my city of Charleston. But it actually began earlier, as part of the fundamentalist backlash against liberal excesses of the 1960s.

In 1969, one of our local evangelists, Charles Meadows, went before the Legislature and demanded a return of the death penalty, because the Old Testament requires executions. He said he’d “be glad to pull the switch myself” on the condemned.

Then he denounced sex education in public schools. He rented a Charleston theater and invited “Bible-believing Christians” to rally against the “pornography” of sex education. Committees were formed. A movement grew.

Next year, Alice Moore, wife of a born-again preacher, became the movement’s candidate for school board. She said sex education is part of a “humanistic, atheistic attack on God.” She won, and became the board’s ayatollah, supporting Bibles for students and expulsion of pregnant girls.

In 1974, when new textbooks were up for adoption, Moore denounced the books as irreligious, and a protest grew. A group of 27 fundamentalist ministers called the texts “immoral and indecent.” (Rascals like me hunted for indecency in the books, but found just ordinary school topics.)

On the night of the adoption vote, 1,000 protesters surrounded the board office. Despite this menace, members voted 3-2 for the books. Afterward, a group called Christian American Parents picketed a store chain whose president, a board member, had voted yes.

When school opened, evangelists urged “true Christians” to keep their children home. Attendance fell 20 percent–more so in the poor end of the county. The Rev. Marvin Horan led a rally of 2,000 protesters. Mobs surrounded schools and blockaded school bus garages. Teachers were threatened. So were families who did not join the boycott.

About 3,500 coal miners went on strike against the “godless” texts, and began picketing Charleston industries. Flying rocks, screams and danger were constant. Frightened people began carrying pistols. Many school buses couldn’t run–and then textbook pickets halted city buses, leaving 11,000 low-income people without transportation.

Pickets surrounded a truck terminal, and a terminal janitor fired a shot which wounded one. Other pickets beat the janitor savagely. The next day, an armed man panicked when pickets surged toward him. He fired a shot that wounded a bystander. Two book protesters were jailed for smashing windshields.

The school board got a court injunction against disrupters, but it didn’t help. Finally the superintendent closed schools, saying the safety of children couldn’t be guaranteed. Schools also closed in two neighbor counties.

Network TV crews swarmed to Charleston. A cameraman was trounced by protesters at a rally. Fundamentalists marched on the state Capitol and filed a federal suit against the textbooks. Several ministers were jailed for contempt of the court injunction.

Schools reopened. The boycott resumed. One preacher prayed for God to kill the board members who endorsed the books. A grade school was hit by a Molotov cocktail. Five shots hit a school bus. A dynamite blast damaged another grade school. A bigger blast damaged the school central office.

Near-riot conditions continued. Robert Dornan of California, a pornography foe, came to Charleston to help lead the protest. That put him on his way to Congress as a Christian hero.

Some Charleston churches started born-again schools, so families could avoid public schools. Some tried to split off the poor, fundamentalist end of our county into a separate county.

Minister Horan and three of his followers were indicted for the bombings. Ku Klux Klan leaders led a Charleston rally to support them. An imperial wizard from Georgia said the Kanawha textbooks contained “the most vulgar, vile and filthy words in print”–which was odd, since nonfundamentalists couldn’t find any obscenities in them.

During the trial in 1975, some followers testified that Horan had led the dynamite plot, telling them there was “a time to kill.” They said the plotters talked of wiring dynamite caps into the gas tanks of cars in which noncooperating families were driving their children to school during the boycott. All four defendants went to federal prison.

Horan’s conviction ended the protest. Other leaders lost face. Minister Meadows left his church after being caught in an affair with a woman religion teacher. School board member Moore abruptly left the state. Another evangelist’s wife ditched him and took his luxury car.

Looking back, it was a season of madness–a frenzy over nothing, like the ferment among believers who thought the moon-and-stars logo on Procter & Gamble soap was a secret sign of Satan.

Incidentally, the West Virginia uprising preceded a national pattern as fundamentalists in other states began protesting against “godless” textbooks. The pressure caused many publishers to downplay evolution in biology books, and make other concessions.

So, as you can see, religion can evoke The Twilight Zone. But I think the problem is bigger than just the most bizarre examples. I think all religion is The Twilight Zone.

Every supernatural system–from Catholics who think a wafer turns into miraculous flesh, to Scientologists who think they’re “thetans” from another planet–from Pentecostals who spout “the unknown tongue,” to TV evangelists who say God wants movies censored–from Mormons who think Jesus came to America, to New Age swamis who “channel” spirits from the lost continent of Atlantis–it’s all belief in magic, unsupported by any tangible evidence.

Maybe there’s a direct link between irrational beliefs and irrational results. Maybe it’s inevitable that worshipping imaginary spirits will lead at least a few worshippers into committing abominations of the sort we’ve discussed. I wish that some researchers would study this possibility.

We in this assembly have dedicated ourselves to fighting supernaturalism in all its guises, to seek human decency without resort to the mystical. We’re overwhelmingly outnumbered by the billions of believers around the planet. Sometimes it seems we’re on a futile crusade.

But I have an irrational faith of my own. Despite all contrary evidence, I refuse to believe that the human species is totally stupid. I think that if we in the news media continue reporting all the holy horrors, all the mindless religious outrages, thinking people eventually will begin to see The Twilight Zone for what it really is.

James Haught, editor-in-chief of the Charleston Gazette, West Virginia, since 1993, has been a member of the Gazette staff for more than 40 years, and has won 15 national newswriting awards. He attended the University of Charleston and West Virginia State College, and joined the Gazette staff in 1953. He has been a police reporter, religion columnist, feature writer, investigative reporter and night city editor whose work brought several corruption convictions and reform of state consumer laws. The National Press Club has given him three consumer writing prizes. Jim, a Foundation member, is married with four children, and has seven grandchildren. His books include Holy Horrors (1990), Science in a Nanosecond (1990), Holy Hatred (1994) and 2,000 Years of Disbelief (1996). His web site address is http://

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