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Advocatus Diaboli

by Tom Flynn

The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 12, Number 3.

Why Pull Our Punches?

The Best Lack All Conviction ...

There are religious people and there are religious people. On issues from social justice to abortion rights, secular humanists have long made common cause with a broad spectrum of Christians. From liberal Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Methodists to members of the United Church of Christ, mainstream Protestants defended many of the same barricades we did. Too bad such nice folks are having their flocks snatched out from under them by more muscular, less tolerant evangelical and fundamentalist denominations. But the sad truth is that humans afflicted by the transcendental temptation seem to favor churches that proclaim a lot, demand a lot, and forbid a lot. Countless pundits have decried the erosion of mainstream Protestantism and its gradual replacement at the heart of American religious life by strident evangelical fundamentalism.

According to the recent Pew Research Center survey on American attitudes toward religion in public life, this process has reached an important - if regrettable - milestone. For the first time I can remember, the survey grouped American Christians as follows:

  • White Evangelical Protestant
  • White Non-evangelical Protestant
  • White Catholic
  • Black Christians

See what happened? Mainstream Protestantism has become irrelevant. "White Evangelical Protestant" is now the default category. The liberal, sophisticated believers whose relative sanity we used to count on are now defined only as "White Non-evangelical Protestant" - that is, by their difference from the fundagelical norm.

Some humanists say the ballyhooed resurgence of spirituality in American life is nothing to worry about. They argue that while heightened religious sentiment will surely benefit intolerant right-wing Christianity, mainstream denominations will benefit more. Time for a new dream! Yes, a rising tide lifts all boats. But each day more of the skippers resemble Rousas Rushdoony than Martin Marty. Increasingly, what's good for American Christianity means what's good for Southern Baptists, the Assemblies of God, and nameless ultraconservative churches that preach the denial of evolution, the laying on of hands, the subjugation of women, and the damnation of all who disagree.

As benign denominations play a smaller role in the fabric of American religion, there is less reason for secular humanists to distinguish among the sects. No longer should we quail from declaring that it is with religion itself - the willing adherence to supernatural propositions because of the emotional satisfaction they bring, rather than any intersubjective demonstrability of their truth - that the problem lies.

Something to Do (Besides Sleep) Sunday Morning ...

One fledgling group near Detroit has found a way to speak out against religion as such, one that hardy humanists might adopt (or adapt) as an outlet for activism in their own groups. Brian Hinson chairs the Society of Activist Freethinkers (SAF), also known as the Antireligion Society. SAF was organized "to educate the public that all religions are rooted in myth" and "to inform the public that all religions are a danger to a modern, civilized and technological society." My kind of outfit! SAF publishes hard-hitting rationalist tracts subtitled "Think Before You Believe" that baldly present Bible contradictions. So far, nothing new.

But how does SAF distribute their anti-tracts? Would you believe ... under the wipers of cars in church parking lots?

According to Hinson, so far SAF's roughly 90 members across the country have distributed between 10,000 and 15,000 leaflets. One highlight was leafleting portions of the Pontiac Silverdome parking lot during a Promise Keepers rally. So far, Hinson says SAF's bold tactics have led to "no arrests, no physical confrontations. ... We believe that being examples of good citizens, not mouthy fanatics, is more likely to change someone's mind." They also realize that they are sowing seeds of doubt that may take years to blossom - and will do so only among a tiny fraction of their targets.

Some critics find church leafleting too aggressive. Others say the humanist movement can't spare the resources to beard the most committed religious lions in their dens. Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that on Sunday churches contain at least two kinds of people - the contented believers whom nothing is likely to change, and a questioning minority who attend services more frequently precisely because they are searching for answers. I spent years going to church while questioning my deepest convictions. Finding a SAF tract on my windshield - and with it, a point of entry into the rich demimonde of atheist, freethought and humanist thought - might have spared me untold guideless searching.

According to recent research, persons who grow up strongly religious, then become nonbelievers, make up as little as one percent of the general population. But people with this rare background make up more than half the active membership of most humanist groups. The rationale for humanist recruiting among churchgoers seems paradoxically solid.

Humanist groups hungry for activities might try church leafleting. Some will develop anti-tracts of their own, less sharpedged than SAF's. Others may go for the gusto. If you'd like information straight from SAF, write PO Box 40995, Redford, Mich., 48239-9998 or email ANTIRELIG@AOL.COM. If your group experiments with church outreach, let me know about your experiences.

What do you think? Write Advocatus Diaboli, P.O. Box 664, Amherst NY 14226-0664. If you prefer, fax (716) 636-7571 or email tflynn@centerforinquiry.net.  Letters will be printed with attribution unless you request otherwise.

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This page was last updated 12/04/2003

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