Faith Behind Bars

In “Triple Play: Faith Behind Bars, Measurement in Chains” (FI, June/July 2012), Tom Flynn writes that there may be greater than expected religious affiliation reported in the prison inmate population. Much as I wou ld find a wry satisfaction in evidence that religious affiliation correlates positively with crime rates, or at least with conviction rates, I fear that there is a simpler explanation for the apparent religiosity of our incarcerated brethren. Prisoners are as aware as anyone else that the establishment still equates religious affiliation with “good guy” status. It is a simple assumption that the prison administration will look positively upon prisoners who “find God” while incarcerated. Many prisoners sign up for religious affiliation, services, prayer meetings, etc., just to look good to their keepers with the expectation of more favorable treatment, better progress reviews, earlier parole, etc. In short, it is unfair to expect our prison population to be any less hypocritical about religious membership than the population at large.

Ronald Ventola
Flushing, New York

Tom Flynn lets confirmation bias run wild in contriving his far-fetched interpretation of incomplete data supplied by prison chaplains seeking to “measure” inmate religiosity. He follows a line of reasoning that goes something like this: chaplains have observed that inmates are almost certainly more religious than the general population. By implication, religion seems to appeal more strongly to the “criminal” mind than to the “normal” mind and presumably “proves problematic for religious conservatives . . . who claim that faith is necessary for morality.”

Curiously omitted from the discussion is any foundational data that fleshes out the demographic profile of the actual inmate population in the United States. This population is 70 percent nonwhite and 40 percent black; only 40 percent have a high-school diploma while 60 percent are deemed functionally illiterate.

Since the early 1970s, the prison population has quintupled to become the largest among world nations because law enforcement has targeted disproportionate numbers of African Americans and Latinos for drug offenses committed in low-income, high-unemployment, inner-city neighborhoods. It seems more reasonable to correlate religious orientations expressed by incarcerated populations with the high levels of religious belief consistently recorded by pollsters within the deprived, dysfunctional and often racially oppressed underclass from which they emerge.

Jim Valentine
Woodland Hills, California

Tom Flynn replies:

There is no question that many prisoners affect religious zeal in the hope of securing better treatment or winning parole. Still, in the small number of surveys that have been able to measure religious belief/affiliation among prisoners, the number of declared believers has been vastly larger than in the general population. Typically the divergence is so large as to beggar belief that religious “posing” by advantage-seeking convicts, however widespread, could account all of it. The same was true during the early twentieth century, when outside polling regarding prisoners’ religions was still permitted. Despite divergent methodologies, those studies too found levels of piety far in excess of then-current norms. Obviously the ethnic makeup of the inmate pool was far different then, which may or may not speak to reader Jim Valentine’s objection.



Humanists on Death

Greta Christina is spot on when she asks “Do we concede the ground of death too easily?” (FI, June/July 2012). While I agree with what she says it seems her arguments are unnecessarily complicated and she misses a much simpler point. My question is: What do you do in an eternal afterlife? To spend eternity wanting to do something but not having eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and hands to see, hear, smell, taste, and feel so that I can change things seems like the worst possible nightmare. On the other hand, if I had no desire to do anything I might as well be dead.

Vic Arnold
Westerly, Rhode Island



Support for a Nuclear Iran

Apparently, in Shadia Drury’s eyes (“American Conceit: The Case of Iran,” FI, 2012), it is OK for Iran to possess nuclear weapons because the United States has thousands of them and apparently Israel has two to three hundred of them. It would be ”suicidal” for Iran to attack Israel because of Israeli retaliation. Furthermore, Ahmadinejad “Hasn’t threatened to wipe out Israel, only to put an end to the Zionist state.” Furthermore, she alleges that he has not denied the Holocaust but merely denies that the Muslims had anything to do with it.

As a citizen of the “Zionist” state, permit me to put Drury right on a few points.

Ahmadinajad threatened to wipe out Israel from the podium of the General Assembly of the United Nations in front of the entire world (incidentally, the first and only time anyone has done something like that). Furthermore, he hosted a Holocaust Denial conference in Teheran to which he invited all the well-known Holocaust denial champions of Europe.

Iran funds and trains Hezbollah in Lebanon and has armed them with thousands of short- and medium-range rockets capable of reaching every point in Israel.

Iran is eighty times the size of Israel. One nuclear bomb on the area of Tel Aviv would be sufficient to effectively destroy Israel.

As a member of a people who have been “guests” of Christian and Muslim countries for over 1,800 years, culminating in the Holocaust in Europe, actively encouraged by Hitler’s personal friend, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, I claim the right to a piece of territory of my own, not subject to the whims of other citizens of the “One State” that Drury seems to be so keen on. Unlike some of my countrymen, I do not base this claim on divine promises but on the simple fact that there is a mass of archeological evidence that a group of people known as “Israelites” or “Judeans,” from whom I claim to be descended, occupied parts of the area now covered by Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, and the Golan for over one thousand years, until they were forcibly expelled by the Romans in 135 ce.

I am quite willing to recognize the rights of Palestinians to a share of this area. Unfortunately they are not ready to recognize mine. And the idea of a nuclear Iran scares me to death.

Neil Schwartz
Ra’anana, Israel

Shadia B. Drury states that Iranian President Ahmadinejad has not denied the reality of the Holocaust, just that it happened in his neighborhood. Here is Ahmadinejad speaking in a 2005 Al-Alam interview: “Some European countries insist on saying that during World War II, Hitler burned millions of Jews and put them in concentration camps. Any historian, commentator, or scientist who doubts that is taken to prison or gets condemned. Although we don’t accept this claim [of the Holocaust]. . . .”

Drury also states that Ahmadinejad has never threatened to wipe Israel off the map, just expressed a desire to end the Zionist state. Here is Ahmadinejad speaking on the nineteenth anniversary of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s death in 2008: “You should know that the criminal and terrorist Zionist regime which has sixty years of plundering, aggression, and crimes in its file has reached the end of its work and will soon disappear off the geographical scene.”

A shaft of perfect acuity descended from the Iranian storm cloud in May 2012, when Iran’s military chief of staff said: “The Iranian nation is standing for its cause and that is the full annihilation of Israel.”

Drury whitewashes Iran’s intentions and so becomes a propagandist. In a magazine for atheists, perhaps she feels that she can get away with it. But to allow Iran a nuclear deterrent, in some kind of MAD (mutual assured destruction) scheme, is just what the acronym implies. Perhaps someday a citizen of Iran will be able to criticize the Prophet or openly burn a copy of the Qur’an without facing execution. Unfortunately, I suspect that the repeal of blasphemy laws is at least one civil war away.

Scott Schad
Tulsa, Oklahoma

I find it strange that Shadia Drury thinks that “the world would be better off if Iran had a nuclear weapon” or that she would compare the tension between the United States and a nuclear-armed Iran with the tension between the United States and Russia during the Cold War. Two secular nations engaged in a nuclear standoff have their desires for domination frustrated by the mutual disinclination to die. This mindset provided a stabilizing force that mitigated the risk of either side launching an attack; neither would have won anything but a decimated planet and societies in chaos and both sides were rational enough to realize it.

As far as I can tell, the United States is still a secular democracy that has no intention of nuking anyone out of a religiously based ideology. This is why it is vital that the role evangelical Christianity plays in determining public policy diminish. On the other hand, Iran is an Islamic theocracy in which the real power lies not with the president but with the clergy, who harbor their own dangerous eschatology. If the greatest use of one’s life (or the life of a nation called by God) is to sacrifice it in defense of the faith, then all bets are off. The Muslim world is currently shot through with beliefs in martyrdom and jihad and thus the concept of MAD no longer applies. If the other side wants to die so it can fulfill its imagined historical and religious destiny and attain paradise, and it has the means to do so, that is a danger that free people everywhere must resist.

Matt Millsap
Lander, Wyoming

As usual, Shadia Drury is spot-on with her op-eds. After reading her June/July article, I was very moved. At the age of eighty-three, I remember the days when the Defense Department was called the War Department—much more appropriate, don’t you think?

Arthur Howard
Jacksonville, Oregon

Shadia B. Drury responds:

The quotations from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad referred to by the readers above were a subject of controversy, and their translations were in dispute. So, when Larry King interviewed Ahmadinejad on CNN, he asked him bluntly if he did not believe that the Holocaust really happened and if he wanted to push Israel into the sea. I based what I said about Ahmadinejad on his response to Larry King—through an interpreter. Just because I am no friend of Zionism, does not mean that I am a propagandist for theocratic thugs. I’m all for a post-Zionist Israel. It is inevitable, but it will take time.

My heart goes out to Neil Schwartz, who lives in Zionist Israel. Unfortunately, the Zionist ideology has turned Israel into a military garrison that is besieged on all fronts. In one of its earliest incarnations, Zionism was a very good idea. Having endured hundreds of years of persecution at the hands of the Catholic Church, and finding themselves persecuted by the nation states that followed in the wake of the French Revolution, some Jews rightly said: “Enough! Let’s leave Europe and return to the land of our ancestors and live with people like ourselves who are more likely to accept us, since most of them are also descendants of Abraham.” It was a reasonable idea because, unlike Christianity, Islam does not demonize the Jews. It does not consider them deicides—i.e., the killers of God incarnate in Jesus Christ. In contrast, Islam considers the Jews as the “people of the book.” It is that book and its monotheistic message to which Islam is dedicated and from which Christianity has strayed—because no matter how you slice it, three (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost) can never equal one. So, the Jews certainly belong in Palestine and have every right to be there.

The trouble set in when Zionism morphed into a European-style nationalist movement. Nationalism is the claim that every “people” with a distinctive language, religion, culture, and ethnicity should have a sovereign country of its own that allows citizens to act as one self-determining entity. Once this idea emerged, Jew-hatred in Europe was no longer based on the Jews being deicides but on being a foreign element that contaminates the purity of European nation states.

A few hundred thousand Jews went to live in Palestine at the end of the nineteenth century when Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire. The latter deprived all its subjects of political freedom but gave them religious and cultural freedom under the Millett system. But when the Ottoman Empire was dismantled by the European powers in World War I, the modus vivendi in which Christians, Muslims, and Jews lived together was replaced with nationalist ideology. The latter is particularly deadly when introduced to parts of the world where there is a great diversity of people with differing religions and languages living in the same vicinity. The dreadful effects of nationalism are still with us—witness the turmoil in Syria, Egypt, and Israel. For the nationalist mind-set the only relevant political question is: To whom does the nation belong? As long as Zionism remains a nationalist movement, it will continue to contribute to the ethnic hatreds in the region. A nationalist movement is not interested in safety but only in the defense of the purity, authenticity, and exclusivity of the nation state. As long as Zionism remains a nationalist movement, Israel will have to live with endless war.

If Israel would like to be a safe haven for Jews, then here is my advice. Forget Joshua; forget God’s command to slaughter all the inhabitants of the Promised Land; forget European nationalism, its racial exclusivity, and its genocidal ways; abandon all pretense to democracy. Instead, learn from two other sources: Cyrus the Great (founder of the Persian Empire) and the Hebrew prophets. Cyrus was the first conqueror not to slaughter the people he conquered. He was the greatest conqueror in history because he was also a liberator. When he conquered Babylon, he liberated the Jews, who had been in captivity there for generations—a debt that the Jews owe to Persia (i.e., Iran). Israel now owns the West Bank, and it should just take it with all the people in it without trying to cleanse it settlement by settlement. Another lesson from Cyrus is that once you conquer a land and its people, you have to dispense justice—it’s an obligation and a privilege. Israel needs equitable laws that are justly administered on all the inhabitants of its territories. And here is where it will need the Hebrew prophets for inspiration about social justice.

In short, my advice to Israel is this: Stop living in fear. Stop getting the United States to fight your battles. Learn to conquer like a great empire—conquer as much land as you can get your hands on. Your military superiority will ensure success. Be quick about it, while the Arabs are still living under dreadful tyrannies. Remember, it is easier to conquer people living under tyranny if you offer them justice. Look to the prophets for inspiration in that department. There is no time to waste; the Arab Spring is kicking in, and conquering free peoples will not be easy.

Meanwhile, if you would like a safe place to live, Neil, come to Canada—we’d love to have you. It is our policy to give asylum to people who live in dangerous places.



Is the U.S. a Christian Nation?

In any discussion of the Christian-nation myth, two things get left out (“Once and for All, Is America a Christian Nation?,” FI, June/July 2012). The first is Romans 13, which says that government is ordained by God. Government maintains order and punishes wrongdoing, and good citizens need not fear the authorities. The second is 1 Peter 2, which says we must honor the king. Nowhere does the Bible teach rights and democracy, and it certainly does not teach revolution. America is founded on multiple and egregious violations of Scripture and is certainly not a Christian country.

Ryan Pelsy
Francesville, Indiana

Re “Our UnChristian Nation” by Hector Avalos: in the late 1960s, a Billy Graham crusade came to Angel Stadium giving Christians around Orange County the chance to exercise their faith. The golden opportunity for believers was the role of counselor: people who sat in the back of stadium sections waiting to follow sinners down to the field during the invitation. There, in front of Billy’s pulpit, counselors led converts in the prayer of salvation. This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity gave timid believers a low-risk, highly rewarding opportunity to serve God as he commanded: to go into the world and preach the gospel (Mark 15:16), to confess Jesus to men on earth so he will acknowledge us to his father in heaven (Matthew 10:32), and to be hot for God or be spewed from his mouth (Rev. 3:15–16).

Our church served as a counselor training center every Thursday over several weeks. Our sanctuary seated three hundred, but two Sunday services accommodated attendance of 150 percent capacity. With two other congregations joining us, I expected standing room only as those with conviction flocked to this chance to stand up for Jesus, to throw out a lifeline, and to rescue the perishing, which we sang about week after week. We could answer the call, demonstrate Christian love, and experience the joy we often forfeit.

The training provided an eye-opening lesson on the hypocrisy and self-deception rampant in our congregation. Three-quarters of the sanctuary sat empty the first session, and attendance diminished from there. What our congregation rejected in practice were the very precepts our brand of belief espoused.

Gary Zimmerman
Klamath Falls, Oregon

Re “How Secular Humanists (and Everyone Else Subsidize Religion in the U.S.” by Ryan T. Cragun, Stephanie Yeager, and Desmond Vega: there is no question that churches—especially the mega churches—are exploiting their tax exemption to an unethical degree. Here in the Houston area there are two mega-churches that offer business consultation, marriage counseling, vocational counseling, rock concerts, exercise spas, and every kind of recreation imaginable all in the tax-exempt name of Christian service. I do not deny that these are good services. But, as it now stands, because of their tax exemption, they’re in unfair competition with private enterprise. This is an act of bad faith in a democratic society sporting separation of church and state.

John L. Indo
Houston, Texas



‘On Gods and Placebos’ Simplifies Complexity

When someone offers a one-size-fits-all explanation for complex human behavior, my oversimplification alarm clamors. According to Martin Jaffe’s “On Gods and Placebos” (FI, June/July 2012), “The desire to feel secure is the basis for human emotion and behavior. . . . Jaffe qualifies his sweeping thesis by noting that “security is the goal of all rational human behavior” (my italics). But surely he must know that much human emotion and behavior is caused by unconscious processes that are not controlled by rational thinking.

Jaffe contends that the desire to feel secure “is the reason humans have believed in gods since the beginning of known history.” There are at least several other reasons, including our tendency to see agency in natural phenomena, our love of ritual, religion’s contribution to group solidarity, and its answering with myths our curiosity about the world and universe before the advent of science. Jaffe dismisses religion by saying it provides “a false sense of security due to a placebo effect.” That’s true to an extent, but I doubt that people feel very secure when they fear hell or take part in holy wars.

Walter Balcerak
Brooklyn, New York

Martin Jaffe responds:

Walter Balcerak is concerned that I oversimplify the explanation of complex human behavior by a one-size-fits-all explanation (based on security). But can’t a similar claim be made for evolution by natural selection, an idea that security and security feelings are patterned after? That is, security predisposes to increased survival, while natural selection selects on the basis of enhanced survivability. Both biological evolution by natural selection and psychological evolution on the basis of security are simple, foundational, far-reaching, one-size-fits-all ideas that produce paradigm shifts. Biological and psychological evolutionary paradigms open new understandings of biology and psychology, respectively.

Balcerak rightfully questions the use of the term rational human behavior. By that I mean behavior whose origin is free from mental derangement, such as occurs with mental disease or when opioids or methamphetamine hijack the mental reward system thereby resulting in behavior that is not based on the desire to feel secure. Also, in response to Balcerak, love of ritual and group solidarity are social aspects of religion and of minor importance to a belief in God. In addition, hell is a nocebo, and by trying to avoid it people increase their security. Finally, people fight holy wars on behalf of their god, who (they wrongly believe) is the source of their security.



The Reason Rally

Re (“Unreasonable Rally,” Josh Bunting and Ian Murphy, FI, June/July 2012): Sam Harris, in calling attention to the self-defeating role of orthodoxy among atheists, likens it to our critics having drawn a chalk body-outline that these atheists are all too ready to drop down and fill. The Reason Rally deserves praise for rallying political support at Congress’s doorstep rather than a brickbat for participating Senator Tom Harkin’s affiliation with quack medicine (which played no role in the proceedings). Theist orthodoxy, like its kissin’ cousin religious orthodoxy, holds that disagreement on a single point of rationalist thought is, dare we say it, “heresy.” For some, this has led to dismissal of comedian Bill Maher for his anti-vaccination stance, popular video blogger Pat Condell for his occasional rationality impaired opinions, and Dr. Phil Mason (Thunderf00t) for straying from science with blanket condemnations of Islam. All have been victims of backlash from orthodox atheists who are ever-ready to toss out ideologically impure babies with the bathwater.

My plea to FI is to eschew orthodox atheism’s exclusionary tendencies. Political progress, which compares better to sausage-making than the hypothetical delights of pure reason, demands that we embrace sound, if ideologically incorrect, people like Senator Harkin to advance our cause.

Jose Segue
San Francisco, California



New Type

The new typeface and improved inking in your June/July issue are substantial improvements. Thank you. Nevertheless, I suspect that most people who believe that serif and sans serif fonts are “by most measures equally readable” (“From the Editor,” p. 63) have 20/20 vision.

Hoyt Mathews
Riverwoods, Illinois



Clarification and Correction

In the June/July 2012 issue you published a letter from Lee Simon who wrote (in a comment upon Shadia Drury’s “Is Freedom of Religion a Mistake?” in FI, April/May 2012): “. . . the state will not grant me the status of conscientious objector unless it stems from a religious belief.” In fact, the rule promulgated by the Supreme Court in United States v. Seeger (1965) is that the belief must be a “meaningful belief occupying in the life of the possessor a place parallel to that filled by the God of those admittedly qualified for the exemption.” That is a bit ambiguous, but looking at the specifics of the cases adjudicated in that opinion convinces me that a “humanistic conscience” cited in the letter could qualify.

Jerry Schwarz
Palo Alto, California

David K. Clark’s article “Ought America to Be a Christian Nation?” opens with a quote by Anne Graham Lotz and identifies her as the wife of Billy Graham Jr. In fact, she’s the second daughter of Billy Graham the evangelist and his wife, Ruth. She looks young for her age. I think David Gregory of Meet the Press, the program from which the quote is taken, also erred when he referred to Billy Graham as her grandfather. Anne Graham Lotz is married to a dentist in Raleigh, North Carolina. Billy Graham Jr. is the evangelist Billy Graham, though he is seldom referred to as junior.

Richard Follet
Palm Bay, Florida

  Faith Behind Bars In “Triple Play: Faith Behind Bars, Measurement in Chains” (FI, June/July 2012), Tom Flynn writes that there may be greater than expected religious affiliation reported in the prison inmate population. Much as I wou ld find a wry satisfaction in evidence that religious affiliation correlates positively with crime rates, or at …

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