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