“Atheists Lose Ground”

The Economist has printed a disturbing article about the growing respectability of Evangelism in the United States. “The Bond Between God And Power” discusses religious encroachment in three areas: government, business, and education. President Bush has his White House prayer circle and we may assume his “Higher Father” has sent him on a Holy Crusade in Iraq. God has become the “Businessman’s Partner” in some companies, and a Texas law now has thousands of pupils reciting a new pledge to the state flag as “one state under God.” Genesis and scientific evolution continue to compete for legitimacy in biology classes. 

Evangelism’s success is regression into the darkness. I reject out of hand the following idea advanced in the Economist article: “The Pew Foundation has invested money in a cadre of first-rate Evangelical academics, and other patrons have created scholarships for Evangelical students.” “Evangelical academics” and “Evangelical students” are oxymoronic. A professor is an eternal “student” in whatever his or her field. An apprentice student wants to likewise learn independent research. Somebody who simply learns lessons is a “pupil.” Children up through high school are pupils. The term “student” should be reserved for those at the college level, because of the greater responsibility for doing their study independently of teachers’ packaged “lesson plans.” 

I argue that Evangelicals are on the level of pupils, because they receive “packaged” lessons. Only a student can be skeptical. Only skepticism motivates progress in any field, whether medicine, law, or the humanities. Evangelicals already have the “answer,” full and complete. No scientist would ever say such a thing. Unlike religion, science discovers and is self-correcting; hence, science progresses and religion stagnates into foolish superstition.

I recognize that some very bright people are also people of faith. But however bright, or however well trained, I cannot accept that they are “educated” in the liberal sense of the term, i.e., having achieved a level of independent thought. People like doctors and engineers are especially susceptible to this, because their course of study is actually more like training than it is independent thinking in any sense of a liberal education. I have a doctor friend who has told me a couple of times that doctors are nothing more than “highly trained mechanics.” Religious physicians using modern training may have freed themselves from the whiskey cure for snakebite, or “bleeding” as a treatment for pneumonia, but they cannot be said to be independent of religion if they still believe in it.

It baffles me that people who study a discipline that requires empirical evidence, testing, peer review, and all the rest, can, without a second thought, turn off the light and leap into the darkness of blind faith – the land of Mother Goose. 

It is not my purpose to sound elitist. I believe educators have a moral duty to lead people from superstition, so that all of us may become “elitist.” In the past, as the Economist article recalls, Evangelicals used “elitist” almost synonymously with “educated.” So I think that the infiltration of the universities by “professors” and “students” who are Evangelicals doesn’t represent an intellectual advance for Evangelicals. Instead, it represents a “dumbing down” of universities.

H.L. Mencken dismissed Evangelicals as “backwoods bigots.” And according to The Economist, “Even as late as the 1990s there was a widespread perception that Evangelicals were poor, uneducated and easily led.”

These so-called “Evangelical professors” are more of the popular culture than of the academic culture. They are subject to fads and enthusiasms. Atheism has been stricken with a recent religious upheaval, and not for the first time. President Bush has identified this as the “Third Great Awakening,” but the title of a book by Robert William Fogel is The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism. Historians differ on this question, with some saying that the so-called Third Great Awakening was really an extension of the Second. 

Whether the Third or the Fourth, what deplorably differentiates President Bush is that no president during the Second Great Awakening pandered to thoughtless enthusiasm. Indeed, President Lincoln let it be known that he was not of the Christian belief. The preachers during those years of the Second Awakening complained bitterly that none of our presidents would confess to being Christian. So it’s a malevolent breach of Thomas Jefferson’s “Wall of Separation” between church and state when George Bush says we are in a Third Great Awakening – and that it includes him. 

Another thing about elitism – it’s a perception based on cultural bias. To freethinkers, Evangelicals seem arrogantly clannish. Evangelicals tirelessly try to impose God and Creationism on our school children. But paradoxically, Evangelicals betray a sense of inferiority when they designate well educated people as being “elitist.” Where I grew up, opera was considered elitist in the extreme. “Real” people listened to country-western. Yet, in Italy, every street urchin can sing, hum, or whistle arias from Italian opera – what in East Texas would be called “highbrow stuff.” One need not be a theoretical physicist to love opera – or to be an atheist.

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