“Huh? Oh, my God! I mean…my Lord! I mean…wow, I never expected to see you here!”
“To be honest, my son, I was just about to say the same thing about you.”
“Hey, Lord, I’m really glad I ran into you. Can I ask you a question? Which one of these would you suggest? Wow, this is so awesome! How many people can say their gun was recommended by Jesus himself? Hey, after I’ve paid for it, do you think you could maybe bless it for me?”
“My son, I can only assume from that cross around your neck that you believe in me. But the cross represents the giving of your own life to save others. These guns represent the taking of others’ lives to save your own. What harmony can there be between them?”
“What are you saying, Lord?”
“What I’ve always said. My kingdom is not of this world, and my disciples do not wage war as the world does. What do you want with a weapon of this world?”
“Well, to protect myself and my family, of course!”
“Oh, you know! Criminals, terrorists, illegal immigrants, Muslims, black people, agents of the tyrannical government, George Soros…”
“In other words, to protect those you love against those you hate and fear. That’s what the world teaches you: love your family and friends, hate your enemies. But what have I taught you? If you love only those who love you, what are you doing more than others? Love your enemies. Whoever hates his neighbor and claims to love God is a liar. Whoever fears his neighbor is not yet perfect in love, because perfect love casts out fear.”
“Seriously, Lord? If an armed burglar breaks into my house, I should just let him kill me?”
“Do not fear those who can kill the body but then can do nothing more. It’s danger to the soul that you should fear. How many times have you heard me say, ‘Whoever tries to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it’?”
“I can’t believe what I’m hearing! Lord, weren’t your disciples armed? Didn’t you tell them yourself, ‘Whoever has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one’?”
“If you read on, you’ll see that was to fulfill what was written in Isaiah: ‘He was counted among the outlaws.’ Back then, swords were outlawed, so only outlaws had swords.”
“You mean you didn’t want them to be used for defense? Only as…props for prophecy?”
“If it was defense I wanted, I had only to say the word and an army of angels would have come to my rescue. But remember what I said to Simon Peter instead? ‘All those who take the sword will die by the sword.’ ”
“Enough! Stop! No more of this!”
“Well, yes, I said that too.”
“Look, Lord, no disrespect. All of this is lovely philosophy, but I have a family I need to defend. And the Second Amendment says…”
“If I were you, I’d be less concerned with the Second Amendment than the Second Commandment.”
“Did you just call me an idolater? Lord, I’m a good Christian! I go to church, I pray every day…”
“Yes, I’ve heard your prayers. ‘Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ Do you really mean that? Do you really want to see my Father’s Kingdom established on earth?”
“Yes, of course!”
“Even though you know it will be a gun-free zone?”
“Why are you so surprised, my son? If you’ve read your Bible, you know my Father’s arms control policy. ‘Bow and sword and battle I will abolish from the land, so that all may lie down in safety.’ ‘They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.’ ‘Every warrior’s boot used in battle, and every garment rolled in blood, will be fuel for the fire, for to us a child is born, and he will be called Prince of Peace’…My son, what’s wrong? You look so pale! Are you feeling sick? Would you like me to heal you?”
“Does this mean…I can’t take my gun to heaven?”
“You must be joking! Of course there are no weapons in heaven! Even animals will no longer need their natural weaponry. ‘The wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the goat. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain…’ My son? My son, where are you going?”
“I hate Muslims,” said comedian Jim Jefferies in his “Freedumb” performance. “Hang on, I didn’t finish my sentence. I hate Muslims, I hate Christians, I hate the Amish, I hate Buddhists, I hate the snake people, I hate Jews, Sikhs…I hate all. Our fight in this world is not against Islam, it’s against religion. I can tell you this for sure: No one’s head has ever been cut off in the name of atheism. No one has ever cut into human flesh, looked down camera, and gone: ‘In the name of nothing!’”
Of course, that punch line got a hearty laugh. Terror in the name of atheism? Inconceivable! Those who could even imagine such a thing envisioned it only as a joke, like the satirical headline in The Lapine: “Atheist Suicide Bomber Kills 18 Agnostics.”
I was laughing too, at first. When I sat down to write Mind Virus, I had in mind a tongue-in-cheek reversal of the overdone “Islamic terrorist” theme: What if there were an international terror group driven by extremist…atheism? What if a criminal mastermind, with the means and mentality of an Osama bin Laden, took his inspiration from Richard Dawkins – “Faith is one of the world’s great ills, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate” – and decided this smallpox of the mind needed a Jonas Salk?
Of course, the more moderate atheists would react as the mainstream Muslim community does after any incident where Muslims are involved: by denouncing the extremists (“We unequivocally condemn those who hijacked the name of reason to commit this irrational act”) and cautioning one another to avoid anything that could possibly suggest guilt by association (“Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to carry books by Christopher Hitchens through airport security”).
The humor, of course, lay in the obvious fact that in real life, such a scenario would be inconceivable.
Can atheism be a motive for crime?
Reactions to the news that Devin Patrick Kelley, the Sutherland Springs shooter, followed certain atheist bloggers and groups online, echoed the response to the 2015 murder of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, by Craig Stephen Hicks, a self-professed “militant atheist” of the Dawkins-Hitchens-Harris type. In neither case, the authorities emphasized, was there evidence to conclude that the crime was religiously (or anti-religiously) motivated; neither shooter said anything to indicate his actions arose from hatred of Muslims, Christians, or religion in general. (Hicks told the police he killed his victims over a parking dispute, which suggests that his level of rationality was not quite up to atheists’ usual standards.)
But one opinion I often saw expressed in the wake of both incidents was that, even if there were such evidence, even if the shooter had openly declared his intent to kill religious people because he hated religion, even if he had yelled “God is not great!” as he opened fire, it would still be nonsense to label the incident as an “atheist crime”. Because, the logic went, atheism means only the absence of religious belief, so it couldn’t possibly motivate anything or implicate anyone. The fact that a criminal didn’t believe in God is no more significant than, say, the fact that he didn’t like chocolate.
And indeed, if a suspect didn’t like chocolate, of what relevance would that be to the investigation? Unless, of course, the suspect’s profile picture was a chocolate bar circled by a prohibition sign, he had a shelf full of books about the evils of the cacao trade, he made a threatening call to his kids’ school after their teacher read to them from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory…and then he shot up a Ghirardelli store. In that case, I don’t know what line of inquiry anyone else would pursue, but if I were looking for known associates, my first stop would be the local chapter of American Antichocolatarians.
You might be an atheoterrorist if…
If you still maintain that terror in the name of atheism is inconceivable, I invite you to take this short quiz and see whether you, or anyone you know, display any of the diagnostic criteria for terrorism laid out by former FBI counterterror specialist Joe Navarro (Hunting Terrorists, 2013):
Uncompromising ideology: Do you believe that your worldview is the only one that can possibly be right, and anyone who disagrees must be stupid, ignorant, brainwashed, deluded, mentally ill, infected with a mind virus, or otherwise somehow inferior? Do you categorically reject the notion that religion might have anything good to offer the world? And if a fellow atheist made such a suggestion, would you immediately label them “accommodationist” or “faitheist” – meaning someone whose ideology was less pure than yours?
Irreconcilable fear: Are you afraid of religious people? Do you live in constant fear that your Muslim neighbor is going to blow you up, the Christian teacher at your children’s school is going to threaten them with hellfire and damnation, or your Mormon boss is going to ban coffee from the office?
Wound collection: When you meet religious people, do you blame them for every wrong ever committed by anyone who shared their faith, throughout all history? Do you, for example, hold every Christian personally responsible for the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, slavery, the Holocaust, Catholic pedophilia scandals, the Westboro Baptist Church, and the election of Donald Trump?
Passionate hatred: Is your hatred of religion the foundation stone of your personal philosophy? Do you feel happiest and most “alive” when you’re bashing religion?
Magical thinking: Do you believe that, if only religion could be eradicated, all the world’s problems would be solved?
Mental isolation: Do you crave the company of equally militant atheists, in person or online? If you can’t be among like-minded people, would you rather be alone than anywhere near a member of one of those “Bronze Age death cults”?
Prescribed violence: Do you feel that rational dialogue is useless with irrational people, and more direct action is called for? Do you agree with Sam Harris that “some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them”? If so, would you volunteer for the job of executioner?
If you answered “yes” to all these questions, congratulations: you qualify as a potential atheoterrorist.
Thankfully, Mind Virus remains safely in the fiction section, and “In the name of nothing!” still has audiences rolling in the aisles rather than ducking under their seats. But to those who insist that terror in the name of atheism is absolutely, totally, and in all other ways inconceivable, I can only make one reply:
“You keep using that word! I do not think it means what you think it means.”
“You could say that, but My kingdom is not of this world. Anyway, it was something about Arnold Schwarzenegger and TV ratings?”
“Huh? Oh, it’s You! It’s great to hear from You. Really, You’re a very, very important person to me. Hey, listen, why don’t You come over sometime? I’d love to have You visit the White House, or maybe spend a weekend at Mar-a-Lago…”
“Would they let Me into the country, Donald? Remember, I was once a refugee in Egypt.”
“No problem. Egypt isn’t on the list. I’m doing a deal in Egypt with a very, very, very amazing man, a great, great developer from the Middle East, a friend of mine, great guy…”
“Donald, there’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you. You’ve managed to convince most of the evangelicals in America that you’re their guy, but…do you really believe in Me?”
“Of course! I’m an evangelical, I’m a Christian, I’m a Presbyterian. I drink my little wine and have my little cracker. My mother gave me a Bible many years ago, and she wrote my name and address, and it’s very special to me. Nothing beats the Bible, not even The Art of the Deal.”
“What’s your favorite verse from it?”
“Well, I wouldn’t want to get into it, because to me, that’s very personal. The Bible means a lot to me, but I don’t want to get into specifics.”
“How about the one that goes, ‘Sell everything you have and give the money to the poor, then come, follow me’? If I came back right now and asked you to do that, would you?”
“Selling the entire Trump Organization isn’t even feasible. I could run the Trump Organization, great, great company, and I could run the country, I could actually run my business and run government at the same time.”
“See, this is what I meant with the whole camel-through-the-needle’s-eye thing. No one can serve two masters. You can’t serve both your business and the people, and you can’t serve both God and money. Whoever wants to be My disciple must deny himself, take up his cross and follow Me. Do you know what that means? Have you ever made any sacrifices?”
“I think I’ve made a lot of sacrifices. I work very, very hard. I’ve created thousands of jobs, tens of thousands…”
“Have you ever read the parable where the King says, ‘Depart from Me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels, for I was sick, and you did not take care of Me’?”
“Obamacare is a disaster. It’s a horror show. If we didn’t repeal it, it’d explode like you’ve never seen an explosion. I like the concept of health care savings accounts, I think it’s great…”
“‘I was a stranger, and you did not welcome Me…’”
“Our country needs strong borders and extreme vetting. I won’t let the next Bowling Green Massacre happen on my watch.”
“Donald, are you really serious about being a Christian?”
“I’m proud to be a Christian! This has been by far the worst call today, even worse than the Australian prime minister. It’s disgraceful for a religious leader to question a person’s faith! Who the hell are You to question my Christianity?”
“You’re a savior because You were crucified. I like saviors who weren’t crucified, okay?”
“It had to happen that way, to proclaim to the world the Good News that whoever believes in Me will not perish, but have everlasting…”
“Good News? Fake news, more like. Thanks, J.C., for doing such a terrific job! You’ll go down as the worst savior in history. We need a new savior, one who’s the real deal: Me! (Hey, if You can spell ‘Me’ with a capital letter, I can too!) The world’s a mess, but I’m going to straighten it out. That’s what I do. I fix things. From this day forward, it’s going to be only Christendom First! And I’m going to make Christendom great again!”
“I have only one thing to say to you, J.C.”
This is a work of alternative fact, but Trump’s words are based as closely as possible on actual speeches and interviews. According to anonymous sources, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) later convened his own prayer breakfast to implore forgiveness.
When tyrants are in the ascendant, it’s easy to despair. Tyranny holds all the cards of political and military power, and unarmed Love appears helpless against it; how can hugs possibly overpower handguns? And in addition to its physical arsenal, Tyranny has an even more powerful weapon inside the human mind: tribalism, the base urge of human beings to seek out those who are like them, and fear and distrust those who are not.
The journey from “Love your friends, hate your enemies” to “Love your enemies” is not an easy one by any means. But those who have taken it make a surprising discovery: the entire universe suddenly allies itself with them, imbuing them with a power that Tyranny cannot hope to match. Here are five reasons why the words ascribed to Gandhi are true: Love will always win, and Tyranny will always fall.
1. Tyranny Closes Borders, Love Knows No Borders
Those who cherish the life, liberty, and happiness of every human being will find kindred spirits all over the world. The same cannot be said for those whose motto is “Us first, and to hell with everyone else.”
When Americans demonstrated for the rights of immigrants and refugees, parallel demonstrations arose from London to Tokyo. They arose not because the issue affected Londoners or Tokyoites in particular, but out of a basic sense of human solidarity, and the conviction that injustice anywhere is an affront to justice everywhere.
The human capacity to extend love to anyone, to value the rights of others – even strangers on the far side of the globe – as much as your own, has helped freedom win decisive victories all over the world, from ending apartheid in South Africa to cracking open the closed state of Myanmar. Any attempt to wall it out is doomed to failure. Like the wind, Love can travel freely across oceans, over walls, through bars and fences…and, when it comes in force, blow you off your feet if you try to stand in its way.
2. Tyranny Thrives on Negative Emotions, Love on Positive
While Love naturally finds allies all over the world, Tyranny must search continually for enemies. When possible, it tries to unite the people against a threat from outside. Failing that, it looks for enemies within. And ultimately, with nowhere left to go, it turns on its own inner circle. But the one thing it cannot do is survive without an enemy, because its power depends entirely on keeping the fires of fear and hatred permanently stoked. The character of O’Brien in George Orwell’s 1984 revealed the agenda of the tyrannical government:
“Old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love and justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy, everything…There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy. There will be no art, no literature, no science…All competing pleasures will be destroyed.”
But of course, the biggest obstacle to this plan is that no one would willingly choose to live in a world like this. There are only two possible ways to make the people cooperate with such a system, and Orwell’s government depended on both. One is to govern through pain and fear, to torture and intimidate people into submission. This might be very effective in the short term, for as Nietzsche points out, “We make promises to love and decency, but we obey pain.” But we also do everything we can to avoid pain, and any government that tries to rule through pain and suffering will find all the wiles of human innovation working against it. And as any torturer knows, pain only works as long as the screws are being turned and the threat of worse to come hangs in the air. The moment it stops, so does cooperation.
The other is to keep the people so drunk with rage and hate that they scarcely notice their own suffering. This also works for a while, because these emotions can be intoxicating, addictive liquors. But they are also poisonous, and people, at a visceral level, can tell the difference between poison and nourishing food. Hatred, rage, the gloat of triumph – why would anyone who has tasted love, joy, or real laughter choose to ingest any of those toxic substitutes? Tyranny can keep pouring these fiery liquors down people’s throats until they pass out. But then they will come to their senses and look back in horror at the consequences of their drunkenness. “War, torture, mass deportations, secret police, internment camps, gas chambers – how could we have allowed all this to happen? What on earth came over us?” Love, meanwhile, knew better than to let the stuff touch its lips in the first place.
3. Tyranny Defends Itself, Love Gives Itself
If Love and Tyranny saw a drowning child, then before Tyranny could say “How can we be sure that child won’t grow up to be an enemy?” Love would already be in the water.
It is not in the nature of Tyranny to put itself at risk for anyone or anything. It draws people to its side by throwing around words like “security” and “freedom”, and using them to mean “I will protect you from others” and “I will not ask you to give anything for others.” Love is not interested in these promises; its nature is to give itself for others, without even pausing first to ask whether those others are in any sense “safe”.
Since Tyranny is obsessed with protecting itself at all costs, it always overestimates the power of force and underestimates Love’s capacity for self-sacrifice. When the British met Gandhi’s march on the Dharasana salt works with violence, they naturally thought that once the blows started raining down, the demonstrators would either defend themselves or run away. Thus, they played right into Gandhi’s hands, never imagining that his disciples would be ready to risk serious harm, even death, just to show the world that their British overlords were not the enlightened, civilized gentlemen they claimed to be.
When Tyranny tries to overcome Love with force, Love wins, because it is prepared to take risks and make sacrifices of which Tyranny is incapable. Tyranny may have all the guns, but Love has all the courage.
4. Tyranny Depends on Silence and Lies, Love Speaks Truth
Tyranny depends on keeping opposing voices silent, and silence is the most fragile thing in the world – you have only to call its name and it disappears. For Tyranny to ensure that its own voice was the only one the people heard was always difficult, and is all but impossible now.
Even in the days when “media” meant only newspapers and radio, the Nazi propaganda machine was continually frustrated by underground presses serving fresh news from abroad to occupied populations starved for truth. Now, in the age of smart phones and social networks, any attempt to stifle the flow of information is futile. The best Tyranny can hope for is to sow confusion, dismissing its critics as “fake news” while spewing its own stream of “alternative facts”, in the hopes that eventually the people will no longer be able to distinguish truth from lies.
Unfortunately for Tyranny, the people have a simple litmus test: the voices that Tyranny tries hardest to shout down are the ones most likely to be speaking the truth. Love has no need to fear the truth, and no hesitation about speaking it loud and clear. And when Tyranny is so desperate to suppress the truth that it wreaks its ultimate and kills the one who speaks it, Love makes sure that the martyr’s voice, far from being silenced, is amplified until it can be heard around the world.
5. Tyranny Is Unnecessary, Love Is Essential
One final, indisputable truth is that without love, the human race would cease to exist. Without the love between man and woman, no children could be born. Without the love of family, they could not grow up. And without the love of friends, the world would scarcely be worth growing up in. Human beings can get along perfectly well without authoritarian rulers, but without love, they perish.
On Valentine’s Day, amid all the pink hearts and flowers and baby-faced Cupids, it is easy to forget that St. Valentine was executed as a dangerous political dissident. According to one story, the Roman emperor Claudius II (aka Claudius the Cruel) ordered Valentine beheaded for the subversive act of marrying young couples in defiance of executive orders. Frustrated at the trouble he was having in filling the ranks of the imperial army, due to a general preference among Roman youth for romantic conquests instead of the military kind, Claudius had called a halt to all weddings, in the belief that young men would be better fighters if they could be kept from being lovers.
Whether this story is fact or legend, repressive rulers through the ages have taken its lesson to heart, and done their utmost to subvert love to their own ends. In its mildest form, this means indirectly threatening the beloved: “Only we can protect your loved ones from some nameless, faceless enemy.” Then the threat becomes more overt: “Obey us or your loved ones will suffer.” Then the tyrant tries to dictate who may love whom, enacting anti-miscegenation laws like those in Germany under Hitler, South Africa under apartheid, and the American South under Jim Crow (until the 1967 Supreme Court ruling appropriately entitled Loving v. Virginia). And the final solution is to try to eradicate love entirely, like Claudius in the past or Big Brother in George Orwell’s imaginary future:
“We have cut the links between child and parent, and between man and man, and between man and woman. No one dares trust a wife or a child or a friend any longer. But in the future there will be no wives and no friends. Children will be taken from their mothers at birth, as one takes eggs from a hen. The sex instinct will be eradicated. Procreation will be an annual formality like the renewal of a ration card…There will be no love, except love of Big Brother.”
In other words, Tyranny makes an enemy of Life itself, of the force that creates it, and of everything that makes it worth living. The more Tyranny tries to subvert Love, the starker the people’s choices become: either die out, or else rise up and shake it off.
* * *
When Tyranny and Love are in confrontation, the world and everything good in it allies itself with Love. Tyranny may well lament, like the devils in C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters: “Everything has to be twisted before it’s any use to us. We fight under cruel disadvantages. Nothing is naturally on our side.” Love finds friends where Tyranny sees nothing but enemies. Tyranny has to suppress or distort the truth; Love is happy to let the truth speak for itself. Love has all the creative power in the world on its side; Tyranny’s only power is to destroy, and it will ultimately destroy itself. And so Tyranny, as invincible as it may seem for a while, will always fall in the end.
At first, he seemed like the answer to her prayers. He was the strong protector she craved for herself and her children…and of course, it didn’t hurt that he was rich and generous, too. By day, she loved going for long walks in the woods with him, and by night, she felt safe and secure with him lying by her side. When he proposed, she eagerly signed the paper that joined their lives together.
But before long, her children began to tell of suffering horrible violence at his hands. When she broached the subject with him, he would only say, “There are people out there who want to hurt them. They need to learn to defend themselves.” And she would be satisfied with that explanation, and put the incident out of her mind…until the next time.
Her friends all worried about her. Her best friend asked her one day, “Don’t you think you’d be better off without him?”
“But I love him!” she replied. “What business is it of yours, anyway? Doesn’t the same thing happen in your house?”
“It does,” said her friend, “but it happens more often in a week in your house than in a year in mine. Something is very wrong.”
“I can’t just leave him,” she said, “after all he’s given me. And besides, without him, who would protect me?”
“Can’t you see?” her friend shouted. “He’s the one you need protection from!”
But she continued to turn a blind eye. Until, one day, she witnessed the most brutal attack on her children yet, in a city that until then had only held happy memories of family vacations.
She finally confronted him. “This has gone too far! I don’t want you anywhere near me or my children ever again!”
“I have never laid a hand on you…yet,” he replied. “But if you try to leave me…”
“Enough of your threats!” she shouted. “You and I are through!”
He laughed. “You and I can never be through. With your own hand, you wrote these words that made you mine forever.” And he showed her the parchment, with the words written in her own fine calligraphy:
A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.