The Bible Belting of America

By Sloan, Gary | Free Inquiry, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

The Bible Belting of America

Sloan, Gary, Free Inquiry

Reflective people distrust stereotypes, often brutal caricatures that cater to human smugness--the dirty old man, the dumb blonde, the welfare queen, the venal politician, the avaricious Jew, the eggheaded professor. Have Bible Belt Christians been similarly traduced? Are they really narrow-minded, self-righteous, and irrational? Like tobacco-chewing, potbellied sheriffs and vacuous plantation belles sipping mint juleps, might these Southern specimens of mindless religiosity be figments of the media imagination? An egghead ensconced in the ivory tower and inclined to err on the side of skepticism, I would, prior to 1996, have answered yes.

In that year I wrote a letter to a large newspaper in north Louisiana, the buckle (as the local clich[acute{e}] has it) of the Bible Belt, In the letter I suggested that Jesus Christ might be a fabrication of late first-century minds, a theory espoused by scholar George A. Wells in such books as Did Jesus Exist?, The Historical Evidence for Jesus, and The Jesus Legend. The letter precipitated an avalanche of demurrals, to which I responded with further missives. My responses evoked responses, the battle escalated, the scope of my letters widened, and I was soon penning outright apologias for atheism, the letters now going to three newspapers--the Shreveport Times, the Monroe News-Star, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. The responses kept pouring in, about 300 in all. On the basis of those letters, I have concluded that a Bible Belt mind does indeed exist. It is a mind resistant to evidence, logic, and scholarship that threaten religious belief. As readers may surmise, the mindset is scarcely confined to the Deep South.

With few exceptions, my respondents pertinaciously, it seemed, skirted the substantive issues I raised. Confronted with arguments against the existence of supernatural beings, the plenary inspiration of Scripture, or the historicity of Jesus Christ, the respondents habitually recurred to a predictable ensemble of evasionary tactics. My epistolary opponents included ministers (no surprise), lawyers, bankers, physicians, journalists, and professors. An editorial page editor refused to print my responses to criticism of me, though he printed critics' responses to my criticism. When I 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."

Eleven professors at Louisiana Tech, where I taught, signed a letter assuring parents that not all faculty members shared my Weltanschauung: "If you or your children become university students, you will meet faculty who have Dr. Sloan's perspective. You will also meet faculty who are committed to Christ at the same time. There are many Christian faculty at this university and at other universities in the area." Another professor urged me to tout Scripture rather than impugn it: "Doesn't the Bible give us, at the ultimate level, strength? Does the humanist really believe all strength comes only from puny human beings?"

A professor of economics spearheaded a movement to have my letters squelched: "Sloan's real intent is to attack, to provoke, to ridicule, to incite, and 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 lawyer elucidated the expense: "Sloan's letters, ostensibly protected by freedom of expression, undermine the tolerance and moderation that make it possible for people with different beliefs to live peacefully and respectfully in one human community. …

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