SkepticblogSkepticblog logo banner

top navigation:

Onward Christian Soldiers

by Michael Shermer, Jun 23 2009

An ironic coincidence — on Monday, June 15, I read two articles back-to-back: Andrew Newberg’s op ed piece in USA Today entitled “This is Your Brain on Religion” and Jeff Sharlet’s cover story for the May issue of Harper’s magazine, “Jesus Killed Mohammed: The Crusade for a Christian Military.”

Newberg is a neuroscience specializing in “neurotheology”, or the study of what happens to your brain when you do religious things, like pray, or think spiritual thoughts, or read scripture, or listen to a sermon. Newberg begins by recounting that in high school he had a Christian girlfriend (he is Jewish) whose family called themselves “born-again Christians”. Although they were always pleasant to him, “they were quite clear that in their view I had deeply sinned by not turning to Jesus. Oh, and because of this, I was going to hell.” That’s nice.

What are the consequences of hearing such negative ideas? Newberg concludes:

There seems to be little question that when people view God as loving, forgiving, compassionate and supportive, this more likely results in a very positive view of themselves, and of the world around them. But when God is viewed as dispassionate, vengeful and unforgiving, this can have deleterious effects on one’s physical and mental health. Again, the research is clear: If you ruminate on negative emotions, they activate the areas of the brain that are involved in anger, fear and stress. This can ultimately damage important parts of the brain and the body. What’s worse, negative emotions can spill over into outward behaviors that generate fear, distrust, hatred, animosity and violence toward people who hold different or opposing beliefs. Thus, it becomes more easy to believe that “I, and my religion, is right and you, and your religion, are wrong.”

Newberg goes on to explain that most Christians are not so judgmental and negative. In fact, he says, it is maybe only one percent. “Unfortunately,” he explains, “this minority often attracts the greatest amount of camera time and ink, too. But what is truly frightening is the fact that 1% translates into 3 million potentially violent citizens in our country alone. And this certainly plays out on the global stage, as beliefs conflict and terrorism fosters fear, hatred and ultimately violence.”

Indeed, in Sharlet’s investigative piece we learn that a good number of these 1% are armed and dangerous — they’re in the military. According to Sharlet, there is a movement afoot to Christianize the military, and they are truly soldiers for Christ — the title of his article comes from an inscription in large red letters painted on the side of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle that reads in Arabic script: “Jesus Killed Mohammed.” Yesserie, that should endear our troops to the Muslim countries, whose own signs signaling their attitude toward Americans often feature “Death to” on them.

That is more than a little unfortunate, because the military has actually lagged behind the general population in religiosity, with 20% of the roughly 1.4 million active-duty personnel telling the Department of Defense that they have “no religious preference,” which is higher than the 16.1% of the American public who tick the same box on similar surveys conducted by Gallup and others (although among active military only .5% — one half of one percent — call themselves “atheist” or “agnostic”, whereas around 8% of the general public does). The other 80% identify with evangelical or Pentecostal (22%), Catholic (19%), another 20% as “Christian” (incorporating other Christian sects), and assorted other religions, but next to no Jews (1/300) or Muslims (1/400).

None of this would matter were it not for the fact that soldiers are sworn into the military to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, not the holy book of their religion. This is what it means to be a secular nation: not that the majority of its citizens are secular, but that its government favors no religion and, in fact, separates church and state. That is not a problem for most religious soldiers, but for evangelicals, by definition they are suppose to evangelize (or else they wouldn’t be evangelicals), and that means trying to convert those around them to evangelical Christianity. And those around them are either fellow soldiers or citizens of an occupied country. Enter the Officers’ Christian Fellowship (OCF), with 15,000 members in 80% of military bases, and growing 3% per annum. Sharlet quotes OCF director Lieutenant General Bruce L. Fister, who equated the “global war on terror” to “a spiritual battle of the highest magnitude.” The Muslims have their jihad and the Christians have their spiritual battle. Onward Christian Soldiers.

In researching his story, Sharlet met with Lieutenant General John Regni, who was brought into the Air Force Academy to straighten out the religious conflict brewing there between evangelicals and others. According to Sharlet:

I began our phone conversation with what I thought was a softball, an opportunity for the general to wax constitutional about First Amendment freedoms. “How do you see the balance between the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause?” I asked.

There was a long pause. Civilians might reasonably plead ignorance, but not a general who has sworn on his life to defend these words: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

“I have to write those things down,” Regni finally answered. “What did you say those constitutional things were again?”

If that were not embarrassing enough, Sharlet documents how copies of Pastor Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life were distributed to high ranking officers by a superior officer, who instructed them to read it and live it. Why? Because, unbelievably (given the above statistics), the evangelicals in the military believe, according to Air Force Lieutenant Colonel William McCoy, author of Under Orders: A Spiritual Handbook for Military Personnel (endorsed by General David Petraeus when he commanded our troops in Iraq), “Under the rubric of free speech and the twisted idea of separation of church and state, there has evolved more and more an anti-Christian bias in this country.”

The rest of Sharlet’s article focuses on the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, started by Michael “Mikey” Weinstein, whom the three-star General William “Jerry” Boykin called demon possessed, and who was denounced by Ted Haggard, whom Weinstein challenged to a boxing match, never accepted. If Andrew Newberg would like to investigate the brain waves of religious extremists, he need go no further than the evangelical Christians who write Weinstein letters:

“You are costing lives by dividing military personnel and undermining troops,” reads one missive. “Their blood is on your hands.” Much of it is juvenile: “you little bald-headed fag,” reads an email Mikey received after an appearance on CNN, “what the fuck are you doing with an organization of this title when the purpose of your group is not to encourage religious freedom, but to DENY religious freedom?” Quite a bit of it is anti-Semitic: “Once again, the Oy Vey! crowd whines. This jew used to be an Air Force lawyer and got the email” — a solicitation by Air Force General Jack Catton for campaign donations to put “more Christian men” in Congress, which Mikey made public — ”just one more example of why filthy, hook-nosed jews should be purged from our society.”

And that’s just the letters. Weinstein: “We’ve had dead animals on the porch. Beer bottles, feces thrown at the house. I don’t even think about it. I view it as if I was Barry Bonds about to go to bat in Dodger Stadium and people are booing. You want a piece of me? Get in line, buddy. Pack a lunch.”

Newberg is right, of course, when he says that most Christians do not behave this way, but for those who do it is the logic of their beliefs that lead them to condemn those who do not accept Christ as their savior, for according to the New Testament that is the only way into heaven and thus the only path to salvation and eternal life. If you really believe that, you also have to believe that you are right and everyone who believes differently is wrong, and being an evangelical, it is your duty — your mission — to tell them so in no uncertain terms. Now, fortunately, most people are nice and mind their own business, and many Christians also share that temperament, but that’s just the luck of the genetic draw (temperament being roughly 50% heritable). We need a higher moral and legal principle to protect all the rest of us from those who do not happen to believe in the principle of tolerance and “to each his own.”

That higher moral and legal principle is freedom. Freedom is at the core of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and it is there to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority, the deepest flaw in democracy. The freedom to believe whatever you want, and to keep government out of the religion business is, counter-intuitively, the best thing that ever happened to religion. Religions thrive in America because the secular government of these United States allows them to. Of course anyone in the majority religion would like their government to give them special privileges — that’s just human nature. But once you establish a precedent for the government to grant special privileges of the majority religion, how will you feel if, say, in 50 or 100 years from now Islam is the dominant religion of America? (It could happen. It is already happening in Europe.) Still want that special arrangement now that your religion is in the minority? I don’t think so. As Thomas Moore explained in A Man for All Seasons:

Roper: Now you give the Devil benefit of law!
Moore: Yes, what would you do? Cut a road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: Yes. I’d cut down every law in England to do that.
Moore: And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned on you … where would you hide? I give the Devil benefit of law for my own safety’s sake.

Amen brother!

28 Responses to “Onward Christian Soldiers”

  1. I have never been successful in convincing evangelicals that separation of church and state is as good for them as it is for me. They watch the meltdown of theocracy in Iran live on the internet, and they’re only reaction is, “that’s because they’re muslim, a christian theocracy would work perfectly.”

  2. Ranson says:

    I’ve seen that quote somewhere else recently, and can’t agree more. I’ve added it to my files, and am seeking out the original.

  3. Rob says:

    “Under the rubric of free speech and the twisted idea of separation of church and state, there has evolved more and more an anti-Christian bias in this country.”

    It makes me want to pull my hair out when I hear Christians talk about the anti-Christian bias in America. Nearly 80% of the population of this nation is Christian. It is virtually impossible to get elected to higher office without voicing explicitly Christian values. God is on our money and in our pledge. Churches do not pay taxes. Religious schools receive tax dollars. Gay marriage is still illegal in many places. Stem cell research is a decade behind where it could be. They have even made in-roads into the science classroom with their creatio… err… “Intelligent Design Theory”(sic). It is still considered wildly inappropriate for me to question the faith of a believer, but no more than slightly rude for a believer to tell me that I will be tortured for all eternity for disagreeing. So I ask, where exactly is this anti-Christian bias again? I must have missed the memo on that one…

    • tmac57 says:

      Rob- You took the words right out of my mouth. I am so sick of hearing people with all of the advantages cry whenever secular people try to make them live up to the Constitution.

  4. Dedalus1953 says:

    Just to digress, I know it’s fiction, but this week’s “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” went head-to-head with the “God speaks through me” argument, taking it to its reduction-ad-absurdum conclusion — a man who kills his loved ones to “shepherd them into eternal life.” I’m sure there are examples of this is “real life,” but, the strength of this episode (besides being chillingly plausible), was that the Vincent D’Onofrio character broke down the man’s assurance using his own arguments, quoting scripture and making him face the fact that he was “acting at the behest of the deceiver.”

    I daresay, my evangelical friends would have hated this episode, if this were the kind of series they’d watch.

    • DLC says:

      For Dedalus1953: Re : Religiousity, family annihilators and L&O CI:
      I saw the episode you refer to also. Although not the same case, there was one famous real-life case of a religous zealot who killed his family “in order to send them to heaven,” John Emil List. A church elder who lost his job, List killed his wife, children and mother-in-law, and then went elsewhere and started over. He was only apprehended after his case was featured on television.
      Religious zealotry is dangerous regardless of which religion the zealots follow.

  5. Neil says:

    It constantly amazes me how many people in the US do not understand what a secular constitutional democracy is (or representative republic, take your pick), and that it was built that way by Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Franklin and others with the purpose of keeping religion separate from governance. These thoughful men were products of the European Enlightenment, not the Ten Commandments.

    Is this not taught in high school anymore, or was it ever?

    • fascination says:

      No, its not taught in high schools. At least not the two that I attended. With public education being as it is in this country most of us have to educate ourselves.

  6. Mike says:

    Wow.As much as I disagree with Shermer’s politics,and make jokes about checking political articles on this site for “Shermer-esc political evangelism”,when it comes to good old-fashioned,down-and-dirty logic,there is absolutely noone else I would rather have behind the metaphorical wheel.Shermer,you’re a credit and a gift to us all,keep it up.

  7. Ramesh Raghuvanshi says:

    Idea of God is in rooted in man`s psyche from ancient time, when fight and flight are not useful man pray.God is not created to us but we created the idea of GOD,we require for our survival.
    Yes it deep rooted in our brain,one year child also pray for God in dangerous situation.What may scientist boast idea of God never die it is our last destination to pray for survival.

  8. Steven says:

    I find the whole concept of a Christian military appalling, and while Roman Catholics and some modern evangelicals will try to argue differently, citing Roman soldiers’ graves with carved crosses and legends of a “Thundering Legion” or a “Theban Legion,” even such conservative church historians as Roland Bainton (author of “”Here I Stand,” the best-known biography of Martin Luther) and Adolph von Harnack (who vociferously promoted Germany’s entry into the First World War) have stated categorically that for its first few generations, if not its first two to three centuries (particularly before the “legitimization” of Christianity under Constantine in A.D. 313) the early church was decidedly pacifistic. There were, of course, even in Paul’s experience people who were already in the Roman legions who came to be converts, and in a time of considerable theological flux and diversity within the non-gnostic Christian community (for example, many early Christian “schools” taught various iterations of [ultimate] “universal salvation” as opposed to eternal hell and torment [for excellent articles see, some isolated cases of Christians in the army may have occurred. One of the most telling extra-Christian sources is the Roman writer Celsus, who complained in A.D. 178 that Christians not only wouldn’t serve in the army but would not act as civil magistrates when they might be obliged to order death or other harsh punishments, and more than seventy years later, in his “Contra Celsum,” Origen wrote that this was still Christian teaching and practice. While many of the early church’s notable figures, including Clemens of Alexandria, Tertullian, Cyprianus, Hippolutos, Justinus, et alii, differed on a wide range of issues, it is amazing how many were agreed that wars are born of attitudes and desires that are contrary to the fundamental example and teachings of Jesus.
    Naturally, many will argue about Old Testament wars, civil magistrates as the sword of justice, national necessity versus personal ethics and a host of rationalizations for war, but it is historically clear that at its inception the church needed no such rhetorical contortions. While skeptics will argue that the “Golden Rule” is an unworkable ideal, the early church believed Jesus when he taught that the love of God and the love of even our enemies both as ourselves and as he loved us (synthesized as the “Golen Rule”), is the foundation of all the Divine law.

  9. William Patrick Haines says:

    Idealist , elitist and Extremist are just plain dangerous whether it is religious economic or political . It is true conspiracy minded tend to be the most viscous and violent the communist , the nazis and virulent anti communist in their search for convenient scapegoats .No system can work where a group is blindly scapegoated or put on pedestal and blindly obeyed.
    I can not think of an extremist group that is not idealist in that would it be great if only or elitist we are the true path . It is a safe bet any one says if only or has classic one size fits all thinking their reality check bounces like the pinball in the Who song Tommy .
    Political bias can delude one’s think as much as religious doctrine . Pen teller defined anyone extolling Mr Chaplin’s talent’s as fighting words perhaps he might have been biased against his socialist beliefs .He makes no secret that he is a flaming anti government libertarian zealot
    Also although the Nostradamus ramblings really is really just ink blot poetry . He said if they had proof of terrorist act they should have notified somebody . Well Mr Bush already had over 100 professional intelligence agencies both domestic and foreign notify him months in advance of the attack and Mr William Jefferson Clinton gave him the tools to help foil potential terrorist attacks via requirements to have a photo id prior to boarding an airplane . You would think any reasonable person would make use of these warnings and do everything they to thwart any potential attack . Then again very few could define this bungling Baby Huey as possessing even an altoscopic speck of reason or responsibly or dedication to duty .
    Could Mr Tellers belief that government in it’s very nature is too corrupt or inept to prevent any tragedy cause him to defer any blame away from Mr Bush ?.So instead of blaming Bush failure to act on knowledge already acquired he said he said more warnings were needed .If Bush did not act on professional intelligence agencies why would the obscure warnings from the 16 th century be heeded ?
    I am also tend to doubt Nostradamus quatrains since they do not predict the Bush tragedy all they had to predict the Bush fiasco was to state “you got to be kidding this bozo should be elected class clown at best ” .Also I am sure private security guards instead of police really are the ticket Yeah I am sure those Paul Blart rent a cops instead of seasoned professional police really put a kink in any terrorist plans. Aint the private sector great . Also if look at Ayn Rand’s anarchist rambling’s and terrorist act’s glamorized and glorified as In fountainhead it advocates violence against those it deems undesirable as much as the turner diaries and it is cultist as Scientologist a

  10. Gene Garman says:

    The Religion Commandments in the Constitution: A Primer

    New book challenges the “Religious Right” and its abuse of history.

  11. Rcreative1 says:

    Sadly, the vast majority of people continue to confuse religion with morality, concluding that they must at least not reject religion if they want to be good. As Daniel Dennett says, there’s a strong belief in belief. That is, we fear that society would come apart if most people were not believers. Great work with fMRI studies like those of Andrew Newberg, and by the legions of evolutionary biologists and psychologists, has demonstrated that moral emotions are encoded in our genes and that religious belief is a cultural adaptation to help explain them. However, science is irrelevant to the lives of most people, and so for most Americans, saying “I’m not a Christian” is tantamount to saying, “I am immoral,” and vice versa. In that context the idea of an “Officer’s Christian Fellowship” seems benign, even beneficial. Skeptics have a lot of work ahead. Until religious belief is viewed as a lifestyle choice like vegetarianism or smoking rather than as a moral imperative, the 1% extremist contingent will continue to exert influence far beyond their numbers.

  12. bill babishoff says:

    I am more concerned at how these religious soldiers act when they return home. It seems odd but when I was in the army we were explicitly taught that we are representatives of the devil! The military plays whatever hand they need. To battle muslims they inspire soldiers to be christian. When battling christian foes they do the opposite. It is us, the citizens who have to deal with the after effects of war. One of those areas is soldiers who are not in touch with reality. They bring the war home. It’s difficult enough to deal with religious fanatics now we have to deal with soldiers all pumped up with their religious war. I don’t care what the surveys say, America is clearly becoming more religiously fanatic and it is not a good thing.

  13. It’s a centuries-old martial tradition to demonize the enemy. Perhaps they’ve discovered a way to double up on that idea by demonizing the enemy as always, but also by deifying themselves.

    I do think the threat of evangelistic Christian soldiers returning home to wreak havoc is very overstated, and that the incidences of PTSD, depression, and/or substance abuse and addiction create a more credible threat.

  14. William Patrick Haines says:

    Yeah I am guilty of a typos and being sober most of the time and I got carried away by my views on politics and economics However . Certain political extremist like to call other people’s point in question but believe it is taboo to dare challenge the validity of their point of view. Brings into mind sacred cows and you need to be saved by our particular deities to prevent bad karma or damnation.
    Can god be defined proven or disproven of a course it can not be .Should it be separated from political activity yes if you abide by the constitution .The only thing that would more difficult than proving god’s existence would be what to ask of the deity .Believing in some invisible hand at work in the market is just as delusional as seeing some religious deity in the clouds .

  15. “Believing in some invisible hand at work in the market…”

    Great straight line, given recent financial market problems and lovely folks like Bernard Madoff. (j/k)

  16. TryUsingLogic says:

    When Shermer says….”The freedom to believe whatever you want, and to keep government out of the religion business is, counter-intuitively, the best thing that ever happened to religion. Religions thrive in America because the secular government of these United States allows them to.” tells it like it is. Christians like to say America is great because we are a Christian nation, but they are as wrong about that as they are about their faith. Freedom is the reason for America’s greatness and when Shermer discusses his thoughts on freedom it amazes me how many skeptics explode into a fit of anger and rage and condemn what should be a reasonable and important discussion.

    Michael, what a great article!



  17. Jeff says:

    Re. Devil’s Advocate’s anti-free-market jab

    The free market’s “invisible hand” only becomes a religion-like absurdity when one endows that invisible hand with a brain. Morality & ethics, like the free (unregulated) market, are merely a framework for viewing physics—the physics of human interaction. And it’s not until one introduces the “quantum” aspects of god to morality, and omniscience to the free-market’s invisible hand, that one inevitably runs afoul of the undeniable for-every-action-there-is-an-equal-and-opposite-reaction physics of both morality and economics. The (seemingly unavoidable) stumbling block seems to be not the lack of religion/regulation, but the inevitable blowback from both of them…requiring more religion/regulation…which produces yet more and deadlier blowback…ad infinitum.

    • What is it about “j/k” that you don’t understand? And how you decided that likening con artists to ‘invisible’ aspects of the market is an anti-free market jab is beyond understanding, especially when offered in humor.

      See those two bolts, one on each of your temples? Loosen each one turn.

  18. CR_Fauchald says:

    “But what is truly frightening is the fact that 1% translates into 3 million potentially violent citizens in our country alone.”

    1% = 3 Million?

    So, you’re saying that the entire population of the US is suddenly Christian?


  19. William Mook says:

    Our propensity toward violence stems from our need to be more than we are, because within us is a deeply held dissatisfaction with what we are. All violence hopes to create conditions that allow us to hide our internal truth and attempt to establish something we know is not true in the very ways untruth was established *in* us when we were small, fragile and helpless. Recognize this weakness among all those who pretend to strength through violence, and violence is undone.

    Those who attempt to bring the God idea in whatever form to their aid to bolster the lie of violence against others whom God certainly created in any legendary role of God, make of God’s memory a hollow idol of hate and vengence and deny the possibility of a loving world of peace and hope and prosperity where all can love one another for a little while, help one another for a little while and enjoy each other’s company for a little while – which in any sane interpretation of God’s intent would be.

    We see in the faces of our enemies a reflection of our own lost hopes and dreams which we set aside as children. The fears and uncertainties our enemies give to us merely activate the lasting fear and uncertainty instilled in us by abusive parents and guardians who used violence to enforce their own mad ideas on us before we were beaten into submission and became mad ourselves.

    Carl Sagan told me once that he had hope of human progress because at the beginning of 19th century the idea of human slavery was widely accepted. The more productive naturally would organize the affairs of the less prodcutive and slavery was the natural result. A world without slavery would condemn a whole race of less productive people to poverty and ruin. At the end of the 19th century no civilized person would own a slave or defend slavery in any way. It was obvious to all by that time that slavery was abhorrent and abusive. This suggested there may be a time in human affairs when organized killing of humans would end. There was a time when people raised armies to kill other people and then there was a time when no civilized person would suffer the death of another – no matter what the reason. Such a world of increased awareness should be possible given the history of slavery.

    This blog is testimony to the remoteness of Sagan’s hope.

  20. Loughlin Tatem says:

    Anybody who has grown up in the evangelical churches of the nineteen sixties and before has sung with gusto, hands raised and waving: “Onward christian soldiers marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus, going on before…” These hymns have now been replaced by choruses about wealth and prosperity, so maybe there is some hope.

  21. Kris says:

    I enjoyed the read. I do have a question though. What if the government was actually supporting a religion and defending it’s support right under our noses?

    Unfortunately, that is exactly what is happening in our country without most people actually knowing it. Religion is this: a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith. If government was not allowed to implement religion into our society then how in the world does the education system dogmatically teach “naturalistic evolutionary theory”?

    Naturalism is the belief that nothing exists outside of nature. That would include God and every other form of “traditional” spirituality. This theory is being taught to our children every day without most parents even knowing it. The current “science” community loves it because most of the people in powerful positions in the “science” world are naturalists and like proponents of any worldview, they want their ideology to spread. And guess what? It is being systematically spread to all of our children without our permission.

    Don’t get me wrong, I understand evolutionary theory and I acknowledge that species do change over time. That is not the issue. The issue is that naturalism has become the sanctioned religion of our education system. Unfortunately, I don’t think most of our senators, representatives, and other government officials quite get the implications. All religion that is not naturalism (which includes every other religion) is being systematically weeded out of our country through the education system.

    With regard to Christian’s desire to spread the message, of course Christians want to spread the message. If someone believes they have found the opportunity for eternal life, they will want to help others to find it to! The problem happens when idiots try and force people to believe in their religions. That is wrong because it goes against our freedom to chose. Anyone who tries to force someone to believe in their religion is a problem, but I welcome people sharing their thoughts with me. Just because we don’t agree doesn’t mean we should not share. I mean, isn’t that what this blog does?