HEADS I WIN, TAILS YOU LOSE by Conrad Goeringer Outreach Director, American Atheists It h

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********************************************************* HEADS I WIN, TAILS YOU LOSE by Conrad Goeringer Outreach Director, American Atheists ********************************************************* It happened to all of us when we were kids, probably even to Jimmy the Greek: Some older neighborhood pal would make a bet with you on the flip of a quarter. "Heads I win, tails you lose!" he would quickly say as he tossed your two bits skyward. Naturally, you lost. The other kid would always win. Religion today is much like a tossed coin where the rules of the game resemble the "Heads I win, tails you lose!"scam. We Atheists, of course, have a tendency to pick on the tails of organized religion (more appropriately called "asses"). The tails are the Bible-thumping, hellfire-and-brimstone fundamentalists who make convenient targets. The tails are "out of step" with modern times; they preach the evils of the flesh in a society more dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure, the "wickedness of godless communism" in a liberal age, and bizarre theories of creation when most of us accept scientific evolution. Tails make good targets since they present the more grotesque and fanatical side of the religious coin. Faith healers are inevitably tails, as are the Sunday TV preachers berating us for loose living, drinking, smoking, reading "Playboy," or supporting abortion. Politically and socially, the tails are reactionary. "Better dead than red" or "Where would you be if your mother had had an abortion?" are slogans in the tails' lexicon. In the ranks of the tails, one finds an assortment of religious ilk ranging from Billy James Hargis or some tent evangelist to a fanatic bombing an abortion clinic. Since they are the more orthodox and reactionary wing of the religious behemoth in America, the tails do not get along well with their more liberal counterparts, or "heads." The heads do not, unfortunately, get their fair share of attention from Atheists, though they are more visible and better organized than the tails. The heads are the respectable, liberal, "progressive" side of the religious coin; often they are found mingling in movements we Atheists may even support. Heads sign petitions against war, oppose conscription, support unions, agitate for social programs, and even support abortion and gay rights. Daniel Berrigan is a head; so is William Sloan Coffin, who spends more time in picket lines than in the pulpit. Martin Luther King was a head, and a good number of the "left-wing" priests in Latin America are also in the ranks of the heads. ****VELVET OVER IRON**** The irony of all this, of course, is that regardless of your personal, social, and political beliefs -- be you right, left, conservative, Communist, or Nazi -- there is a religious outfit for you. Hate gays? Anita Bryant and her Christian bigots welcome you with open arms. Of course, if you happen to be gay, religion has a place for you, too. "Gay ministries" like the Metropolitan Community Church are alive and well, complete with slogans such as "Jesus loves me and he knows I'm gay." If you support a liberal brand of politics, the National Council of Churches provides religion with a progressive mask of respectability. A sizable number of churches today are busy operating sex therapy clinics, organizing community groups, and sponsoring rock 'n' roll bands on college campuses. Liberal clergy represent the velvet glove on the iron fist and a crucial challenge for Atheists. We might begin exploring the pathology of this so-called "liberation theology" -- the view that Jesus Christ was a "revolutionary" dedicated to improving life on earth - - by finding its common ground with more fundamentalist religious movements. All Christians of both the head and tail variety share in common a desire to insinuate religion into everyday social life. The differences between a William Coffin and a Billy Hargis may, superficially, appear substantive, yet both men would inevitably perceive the United States (or wish to see it) as a "Christian nation." Heads and tails agree? Both hold that religion in some form must play more of a role in the country's socio-political system. The tails are busy implementing censorship ordinances, lobbying for the "Human Life Amendment," and protecting blue laws, while their head counterparts fund liberal politicians, support welfare spending, and lobby on behalf of illegal aliens. Whether we as Atheists agree with any of these positions is one thing; the political clout of religious organizations in America, even when used on behalf of "good causes," is another. ****A COMMON PERCEPTION**** Neither head of this religious hydra is apt to support, in principle, separation of government and church, let alone taxation of religious bodies. The "liberal" Council of Catholic Bishops, for instance, announced its opposition to deregulation of the radio industry, claiming that media would become "unresponsive" to community needs. In fact, what the bishops fear is the loss of vast chunks of free air time now allocated under the guise of "public service." Heads and tails are active in causes that will allow religion to find powerful allies, usually governments. Rarely do either conservatives or liberals engage in activities that would weaken the power of the state. True to its historical bent, the church seeks a strong governmental ally. Whether the issue is busing, pornography, or feeding the poor, the outcome -- thanks to religious agitation -- is more laws, regulations, and state power. Similarly, no action taken by either wing of the clergy is designed to weaken the grip of the religious establishment. In one Arizona town, for instance, local ministers and priests have proposed a community obscenity review board, which churchmen will inevitably sit on. And while hip-looking, "radical" priests will march and shout for more food stamps and public relief, it will be the taxpayers (not the church treasuries) who will do the paying. Both heads and tails share a common perception of human society; both are firm in their conviction that humanity is blemished by "original sin" (or that human nature is corrupt), and that the "good" must be imposed by powerful institutions under the tutelage of the "lord's" representatives. To the conservatives, the influence of Satan is omnipresent; the tails speak frequently of maintaining a "Christian America," or lobbying for specific restrictive legislation, and "electing good Christians" to public office. Liberal clergy is also active; speaking as *Christian leaders,* the heads are often found in liberal causes depending on a powerful state apparatus -- one which they hope someday to control "for the good." Liberals are notorious for a social view in which we are a society of helpless victims to be aided by the potent forces of government and church. Heads will usually promote social programs designed to increase popular dependency on either or both of these institutions. ****RELIGION IS BAD, BUT . . .**** Nearly every Atheist sooner or later encounters an old standby argument which is rampant among agnostics, humanists, and other fence-straddlers. "Yes, religion certainly has bad aspects, but . . ." We are then read a chronicle of good deeds -- feeding the poor, organizing tenants against slumlords, supporting farmworkers, providing counseling on college campuses, and organizing neighborhood groups. Much of this "progressive" aspect of liberal religion, however, is self-serving. The Roman Catholic church, for instance, is loud on the issue of illegal aliens coming into the U.S., particularly from Mexico. Roman Catholic bishops are vociferous in their opposition to the "tortilla curtain." Suddenly, the historic ally of the propertied class in Mexico and the southwestern U.S. is now the new friend of the landless and nationless. Or is it? The truth is less noble than the illusion. Actually, many of the illegals are the products of the strict and pervasive Roman Catholic culture in Mexico, complete with gaudy marches on behalf of the Virgin Mary and its childlike, father-image worship of "Papa," the pope. Roman Catholic parishes in parts of Los Angeles, which just a few years ago were in trouble, are now thriving with a new membership -- illegal Mexican, Roman Catholic aliens. The Roman church knows no national boundaries. Religious opposition to birth control and abortion is easier to identify as a blatant, self-serving gesture. All of the talk of the "sanctity of human life" is like so many crocodile tears from so bloodthirsty an institution. Fewer condoms and abortions mean more potential sheep in a bountiful and lucrative parish flock. Another example of the illusion of "progressive" religion is found in Iran. Religious fanatics there masqueraded as "revolutionaries" and "friends of the people," joining in popular fronts with everyone from Communists to dissident students and workers in opposition to the shah. The reality of political power, however, is different from the promises. The "progressive" mask of the Ayatollah came off, and the iron fist of reaction was exposed. Religion poses as a progressive social movement, complete with a banal "theology of liberation," until political power is achieved. Then . . . ****"THEY DON'T NEED A WEATHERMAN"**** Bob Dylan told us long ago that we don't need a weatherman to tell us which way the wind is blowing -- and neither does the church. When anti-communism was in vogue, the church was there to lend its voice to the holy crusade of the Cold War. When that Cold War failed miserably, when ostensibly Atheistic Socialists remained in power, when the winds of political power shifted, so went organized religion. Religious liberals such as Eugene Carson Blake, the late president of the World Council of Churches, was perhaps the most crafty and farsighted of the heads. Blake declared that communism was Christianity in action (Lenin would have disagreed) and urged close cooperation between the Soviet Union and the West. It was not long before the wave of "liberation theology" spawned a school of "radical priests" throughout South America and Africa. And today, the respectable, well-fed hierarchy of liberal Christendom openly supports guerrilla movements in places such as Angola and South Africa. We would be badly mistaken to assume that suddenly the church has transformed itself to begin the long overdue task of bettering the human condition. What is taking place when Maryknoll priests lead guerrilla bands, or when Pope John Paul II hobnobs with Communist bureaucrats from East Europe, or when churches invest heavily in American corporations and banks, is a sophisticated version of the "Heads I win" game. All bets are covered, and the churches are assured of a role regardless of who happens to be in power or who happens to come to power. It was nearly half a century ago when Joseph Stalin disbanded the Atheist group in Russia, the League of the Godless, to mobilize the disenchanted peasantry with the help of the Russian Orthodox church to maintain his grip on Soviet power. Dictators of all shades and varieties, be they doctrinaire Communists, Fascists, conservatives, or liberals, all share a common insight -- alliances with organized religion can be helpful. Churches also realize that alliances with nearly anyone, be they established rulers or ascending revolutionists, are important ingredients in any formula for power. ****THE FAUSTIAN BARGAIN**** American Atheists are confronted with this heads-or-tails game. Religion casts off one public position only to adopt another more respectable or popular one. Liberals and conservatives can easily reach into the murky phraseology of the Bible to justify any issue at hand. Gays can be condemned or supported, depending on which biblical ranting one quotes. Blacks can either be hanged as the "bad seed" of Cain, or treated as brothers in the "Christian spirit." An ideology can be supported or opposed: The "spirit of capitalism" can be sanctioned if necessary, or socialism can be viewed as a "Christian ideology in the spirit of Jesus and the apostles." Every conceivable social doctrine, movement, or issue can be either condemned or praised in lieu of different biblical tongue-twistings. So when we see priests leading demonstrations on behalf of the poor or ministers taking political stands on community issues, we Atheists should remember three things. First, *any* politicking by religion merely increases the power and presence of organized religion, insinuating church power into more areas of social life. Second, since the position of any religion is based on myth, lie, and selective interpretation from a jumble of contradictory rantings, one must ask how and why a particular church or clergyman happened to choose a particular stance on an issue. This lack of well-reasoned principle makes church people unreliable and untrustworthy allies in any social cause. Finally, churches have a hidden motive for doing just about anything -- power. Churches *would* sell their souls to the devil, if such were possible, in history's biggest Faustian bargain. And what can we do about it? How do we beat the "Heads I win, tails you lose!" scam? American Atheists seeks to "promote the study of the arts and sciences and of all problems affecting the maintenance, perpetuation, and enrichment of human (and other) life. . . ." It becomes imperative to see that religious organizations and persons are kept out of progressive social movements. When a priest, rabbi, nun, or minister, for instance, runs for public office AS A RELIGIOUS PERSON, the issue of government/church separation must be raised. When churches speak out on public issues, whether it is the construction of a freeway or nuclear disarmament, Atheists should quickly point out the sorry track record of religion in the betterment of human life. Regardless of one's political or social philosophy, we are all threatened when religious outfits, with their tax-exempt status, become active in the public arena for any reason. Just because a campus ministry suddenly sponsors a rock concert to attract students or takes a position with which we might personally agree is no reason to put our Atheism on the back burner. Today there is a growing tendency, particularly in humanist and freethinker circles, to "work with progressive churches" on behalf of social change. Faced with declining membership and acceptance, churches badly want a new image, a new mask, a new PR job, a new lease on life. To "work with progressive churches" is merely to give religion, and everything it stands for, another flip of the coin. ********************************************************* Posted with permission. Copyright American Atheist Press. All rights reserved. Printed copies of this pamphlet can be obtained from: American Atheist Press P. O. Box 140195, Austin, Texas 78714-0195. Stock #8345. 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