The Power of Religion

    This post by Tim Covell originally appeared at Born Atheist.

    Religionists act as if they are a vulnerable minority under attack by atheists. But look where the power lies. Have you heard of an atheist city, with its own police force and army? There is none. But certainly you have heard of the Vatican City, a city-state in Italy ruled by the Pope, complete with police, soldiers and a $356 million annual budget. Every American President since Eisenhower has met with the sitting Pope. But politicians’ obsequiousness is not limited to Catholics. Most recent American Presidents have met with the Dalai Lama, a Buddhist monk believed to be an earthly incarnation of a Bodhisattva. During the 2008 American presidential campaign, each candidate appeared at preacher Rick Warren’s church. Each candidate professed his Christianity and the winner, Barack Obama, invited Warren to deliver a religious invocation at his inauguration.

    Money is a measure of power. As the second quote at the start of this chapter notes, there is very little research about the amount of money religious institutions collect and control. In the U.S., religions are exempt from reporting to the Internal Revenue Service. Rick Warren’s church discloses that it has an annual budget of $30 million and 400 employees. The Charity Navigator Website reports that in 2007 Americans donated an estimated $300 billion to charity, with the largest portion going to the 350,000 American churches. “Giving USA” estimates that Americans donated more than $106 billion to religious groups in 2008, about $400 per religious person in the United States. The total worth of these organizations, which have been around for years, is unknown. No government agency collects the information, the media does not inquire, and the churches do not reveal it. But with an annual income of $100+ billion and years to gather assets, the figure would be astonishing.

    The power of religion is not limited to money, religionists also have manpower. Just take a look around your neighborhood. A “google maps” search shows there are 12 churches within one mile of my home. Each has an impressive building and most have several full-time employees. If you live in a small town, you will likely find the house of worship sitting in the most impressive building in town and located on the nicest piece of land. If each of the 350,000 churches in the United States has just three employees, there are more than a million Americans working full-time on religious practices. When you add the number of religious volunteers, and estimate the number of religious adherents who are willing to act on directives from their church, the numbers are even more staggering. Think of how many people you see with crosses around their necks, religious tattoos on their bodies, fishes on their cars, or talismans dangling from their rearview mirrors. Each demonstrates at least enough dedication to his religion to advertise it to the world. At least 245 million Americans describe themselves as religious, only about 2.15 million call themselves atheists.

    The number of people employed by religion today is impressive, but not new. For thousands of years religion has dominated society. It is little wonder that religionists are expert at indoctrinating children into their system. Religion applies its rituals days after birth, and stays in its members’ lives through childhood, adolescence, marriage and death.

    Religion controls more than money and manpower. There are about 1,600 religious television and radio stations in the US, accessed by 141 million Americans monthly. Each major American religion runs countless religious schools. Catholics alone run 7,500 schools with an enrollment of 2.3 million students. The U.S. has about 900 religiously affiliated universities. Numerous divinity schools and seminaries teach religionists how to promote their cause to the general population. The commercial media, which earns its living pleasing the general population, never steps too far from the religious agenda.

    Although history is full of conflicts between religions, religionists in the United States seem to be building an alliance—an alliance against atheists. For example, while running for president, Mitt Romney, a Mormon (see Chapter 8 for more about Mormonism), sought to align himself with long established religions and against what he called the “religion of secularism,” when he said:

    [I]n recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America—the religion of secularism. They are wrong. …We are a nation ‘Under God’ and in God, we do indeed trust.

    [God] should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places. Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our constitution rests. I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from “the God who gave us liberty.”

    Nor would I separate us from our religious heritage. Perhaps the most important question to ask a person of faith who seeks a political office, is this: does he share these American values: the equality of human kind, the obligation to serve one another, and a steadfast commitment to liberty?

    They are not unique to any one denomination. They belong to the great moral inheritance we hold in common. They are the firm ground on which Americans of different faiths meet and stand as a nation, united.

    The religious alliance has succeeded to a great degree. Although 65% of Americans believe that more than one faith can lead to eternal life, an amazing 57% think that belief in a god is necessary for a person to be moral. Religionists have done a great job creating prejudice against atheists. A now famous Gallup poll reports that in choosing an otherwise well-qualified presidential candidate:

    94% of Americans would vote for a Black,
    92% would vote for a Jew,
    88% would vote for a female,
    72% would vote for a Mormon,
    55% would vote for a homosexual, but only
    45% would vote for an atheist.

    A 2006 study shows Americans ranked atheists at the absolute bottom of a list of minorities including Muslims, gays, Hispanics, Jews, immigrants and racial minorities. Just a few years after the religiously motivated 9/11 attacks, Americans ranked Muslims more highly than atheists! The report noted that while Americans have become much more accepting of other racial and religious minorities over the past 40 years, attitudes toward atheists have hardly changed.

    American politicians have learned this well. While there are 535 members of Congress, only one, California Democratic Representative Peter Stark, is willing to acknowledge that although he attends a Unitarian Church, he does not believe in a supreme being. In fact, the constitutions of nine states contain provisions similar to this one from Arkansas, “No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any court.”

    Religionists have asserted their political power in Congress. Religionists succeeded in putting “in god we trust” on the one cent coin in 1864. They prevailed in adopting “in god we trust” as the national motto of the United States in 1956, and starting in 1957 the phrase began appearing on paper money. It completed its spread to all paper money by 1966.

    Billy Graham preaching at Madison Square Garden, 1957. (Photo: Cornell Capa / International Center of Photograph)

    Similarly, in the 1950’s a Catholic men’s group called the Knights of Columbus endeavored to add the phrase “under god” to the Pledge of Allegiance. They gained the support of President Dwight Eisenhower who heard a sermon that said, “Apart from the mention of the phrase ‘the United States of America,’ … [the Pledge of Allegiance] could be the pledge of any republic. In fact, I could hear little Muscovites repeat a similar pledge to their hammer-and-sickle flag in Moscow.” The sponsor of the resolution said, “An atheistic American … is a contradiction in terms.” Congress passed a joint resolution changing the Pledge and Eisenhower signed it stating, “From this day forward, the millions of our schoolchildren will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural schoolhouse, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty.”

    Religionists recently became upset when the new $612 million Capitol Visitor’s Center did not include the motto “in god we trust” in its architecture. By a vote of 410 to 8, the House of Representatives approved making a costly change to put the words on the building.

    Politicians follow the lead of their religious supporters and freely disparage atheists. When a reporter for American Atheists asked Vice President (and presidential candidate) George Herbert Walker Bush, “Surely you recognize the equal citizenship and patriotism of Americans who are atheists?” Bush replied, “No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.” When the American Atheists organization wrote to every member of Congress asking that the newly elected President Bush be censured for his statement, not one member of Congress replied.

    Politicians return the favor to religionists for their support. In 2008, “born again Christian” President George W. Bush departed and Barack Obama came in with the motto, “change we can believe in.” But in fact, Obama has both increased funding to religious organizations through his “faith-based initiatives” and invoked Jesus more in his speeches than former President George W. Bush.

    Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger said, “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.” Politicians are acutely aware of the power of religion and cater to the wishes of religionists to stay in power.

    The power of religion extends beyond money, manpower, political power and media control. Religion has woven itself into the fabric of our society. Religion permeates our lives. Many of our names come from the Torah or Bible. Think of how many people you know named David, Mark, John, Mary, Sarah or Deborah. Each time you call their names you make a biblical reference. Circumcision, a Jewish, Muslim and partially Christian rite is still practiced widely in the United States. We use phrases like “thank god,” and “bless you,” with careless regularity. Our legal system is based on the religious concepts of choice and free will. Religion pervades our thoughts and language in ways it is impossible to measure. Religion’s tentacles spread through our art, music, laws and government. Religionists like to pretend they are under attack by secular America, but the religionists roost in a place of power and are firmly in control.

    Religion is the world’s most powerful institution. It has money, manpower, media, politicians on a leash and devoted adherents who will go so far as to kill on religious orders. I emphasize this for two reasons. First, religion is firmly entrenched in a position of power. It is able to set the terms of the debate between religionists and atheists. Second, one must wonder why religion is so afraid of a small, disorganized and despised minority like atheists? Religionists act very much as if they are aware that atheists are right. The next chapter examines who acts like they are right by looking at how each group treats its members who quit.

    Excerpt from Born Atheist by Tim Covell. Published by iUniverse, 2010.

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