The Bible Belting of America
Sloan, Gary, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)
THOUGHTFUL SKEPTICS distrust stereotypes. Besides being superficial, they are often vicious. I had long assumed that the stereotype of Bible Belt Christians was remote from reality. As north Louisiana's resident atheist, I changed my mind after publicly dueling with religious denizens of the region. I have concluded that the Bible Belt mentality is a provincial manifestation of the American mentality.
In 1996 I wrote a letter to a large newspaper in north Louisiana, the buckle (as the cliche 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 agnosticism, 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 With few exceptions, my respondents pertinaciously 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. Most of the diversionary maneuvers appeared in the responses to the following letter, one of my last:
To many atheists and agnostics, the Western conception of God is unintelligible. An omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnific being seems an impossible contradiction, like a square circle.
How can one be both omniscient and omnipotent? Since what an all-knowing being foresees must occur, God could not, even if "he" wished, alter the events he foresees. So his power would be limited. Conversely, an omnipotent being cannot be omniscient because omnipotence would enable him to surprise himself and do something other than what he foresaw.
For believers in free will or hell, divine omniscience raises additional problems. The will cannot be truly free if God foresees all future events. If God knows you will be asleep at noon tomorrow, you cannot at that time be awake. Your subjective sense that you can becomes an illusion.
If, as some believe, many go to hell, an omniscient God would be remarkably sadistic. He creates millions of people who he knows beforehand will eternally suffer.
How can an omnific being be wholly good? How could he make beings capable of evil deeds unless evil pre-existed in his own nature? If he is omnific, he must be the ultimate source of evil as well as good. If you say evil is necessary for good, then evil isn't really evil.
Even if a supernatural Creator existed, he wouldn't necessarily be interested in our little backwash orb. The universe, some 15 billion light years across, must have trillions of planets, many more engaging than ours.
Nor must a Creator be kind. As John Stuart Mill observed, whoever or whatever created the animal world must be fond of violence. If God has the whole world in his hands, they are saturated with blood.
Instead of addressing my comments about the attributes of God, free will, and evil, my respondents did the following:
Adduced the benefits of belief. "I wonder if Mr. Sloan has ever considered that belief in God instills morality and lack of religion results in a lack of morality. Maybe he should open his eyes and look around. I know God is real because he took a policeman (my husband) with a hardened heart and made him the most gentle and loving person I know. …