When it comes to hateful ideological movements, religion has always provided hateful tyranny a helping hand. As James Madison observed, “Rulers who wished to subvert the public liberty, may have found an established Clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just Government instituted to secure & perpetuate it needs them not.”
This is true for religion’s role in slavery and segregation and the subjugation of women and terrorism and LGBTQ rights and on and on. This list is incredibly long, but a few recent examples ought to suffice. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s wonderful Letter from the Birmingham Jail—a piece I reread every few months—was written to his “fellow clergymen,” specifically, “the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South.” King took to task the “white churchmen [who] stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities” amid the “mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice.”
Bob Jones, the televangelist and founder of an eponymous religious school, infamously declared that segregation was scriptural in his 1960 Easter sermon: “If you are against segregation and against racial separation, then you are against God . . . .” Bob Jones University enjoyed tax exemption, a privilege. But the IRS revoked the tax exemption because the school discriminated on the basis of race. In the 1980s, BJU sued the government, arguing that its religious beliefs required the discrimination and that the government could not remove its privilege because of its religion. Fortunately, the Supreme Court disagreed and backed up the IRS.
Jones was not a lone Christian minister fighting for segregation in his god’s name. Many other churchmen joined him. The KKK is itself an explicitly Christian organization. Hell, Klansmen began burning crosses “to spread the light of Jesus into the countryside.” The unconstitutional anti-miscegenation law struck down by the Supreme Court in Loving v. Virginia, was religious, “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents…. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”
Even now, as CEOs, business leaders, and politicians scramble to distance themselves from Trump’s toxicity, his evangelical council—made up self-proclaimed moral leaders—is standing by their man and defending Trump’s Tuesday bigotry.
If recent reports are to be believed, the clarity of this history is getting murky. In a recent NPR story, George Hawley, a professor at the University of Alabama and author of Making Sense of the Alt-Right explained, based on interviews he conducted, who makes up the Alt-Right.
AUDIE CORNISH: You’ve interviewed many people who consider themselves part of the alt-right. Can you give us a profile? Who does this ideology appeal to?
HAWLEY: I would say it is definitely a young movement. I’d say that it is predominantly white millennial men. It is not sort of stereotypically conservative in its profile. I’d say that probably it is a more secular population than the country overall. That is, there are a lot of agnostics and atheists or people who are just generally indifferent to religion. And I think that it is a fairly well-educated movement on average, that as I think that probably the model alt-right member has at least some college education.
Peter Beinart wrote an article for the Atlantic on this topic and was also interviewed by NPR (NPR does great work). Beinart spoke with a bit more nuance than Hawley and addressed the bigger question, why?: “[W]hat I’m trying to suggest in my piece is there seems to be some evidence that as culturally conservative people disengage from religious institutions, they redraw the boundaries of us versus them from religious and moral terms to a divide over race and nation.”
Beinart also suggests that the Black Lives Matter movement is to some degree the flip side of this coin: “African-Americans remain more tied to church than do white Americans. And yet, you see this same divide — generational divide where younger African-Americans are substantially more likely to be disengaged from religious affiliation. I suggest in the piece that the Black Lives Matter movement is to some degree a product of that.”
Another author, anthropologist Scott Tran, argued similarly in the Washington Post, “Young people unmoored from millennial traditions flail about in search of a social identity that gives personal significance and glory.”
Should data back up the anecdotal interviews about nonbelievers in the Alt-Right, there will be an overflow of religious commentators who will try to paint all atheists, agnostics, and other freethinkers as racist bigots. But such data would no more show that the racists were motivated by their atheism than it would show that they were motivated by their college education, especially since the younger demographic is uniformly more nonreligious anyway.
As FFRF pointed out in our statement on Charlottesville, “Raw racism does not spring from religion or irreligion. It is a harmful xenophobic tribalistic instinct that manifests itself in a certain subpopulation of our species. Religion has been a justification for racism, but it does not follow that religion is the cause. Nor would it follow that atheism is the cause.”
Absolutely true. But one thing is clear: Ideas have consequences. Believing that one race—your race—is superior dehumanizes those of other races. This idea has consequences. When “others” are made less than human it is easier to hate them, discriminate against them, marginalize them, and even murder them. This is why Nazis denigrated Jews as “cockroaches” and “rats.” It’s why the Hutus called the Tutsis “cockroaches,” as well. It is sadly straightforward to treat animals like animals. Ironically, genetics prove that there is only one race, the human race.
Religious ideas have consequences too. As I write this, we are finding out about the attack in Barcelona that left 13 dead on one of my favorite streets, Las Ramblas. No claim of responsibility yet, but ISIS is already celebrating. The parallels to Charlottesville are haunting: An attack in which an ideologically twisted individual drove a car through crowds of innocent people, different only in body count and, in all likelihood, motivating ideology.
If you believe your religion is superior to all others, that makes you special and everyone else lesser. If you believe that you are righteous and everyone else is wicked, that idea has consequences. The bible itself is inherently racist as FFRF Co-President Dan Barker has shown in his new book. FFRF’s new website catalogs the racist verses and the verses in which god himself is a slavemonger Go have a look.
Religion is an idea or, more properly, a set of ideas like any other. However, religious ideas differ in two important ways. First, their authority supposedly derives from divine fiat. People who believe they have a divine sanction tend to have the worst ideas. (This makes sense; the ideas are not standing or falling on their merits, but on the basis of authority alone). Secondly, religious ideas are explicitly and deliberately held on the basis of faith. That is, they are knowingly held without evidence or in spite of evidence. As a result, religious ideas are significantly more tenacious. But every mind possessed of these bad ideas is capable of changing. There are plenty of atheists who were once preachers and reverends and Muslims. There is hope. There is hope because good ideas will eventually and inevitably triumph over bad ideas.