Thicken Your Descriptions, My Atheist Friends.

Some time ago I think I finally put my finger on the broadest conception I can to explain why I find New Atheists so exasperating and at the same time so fascinating – they are, invariably, almost completely devoid of anything approaching an anthropological sensibility. And without it they really are completely without resources to explain religious events when, where and how they find them; and perhaps more importantly, they lack any sophisticated means to locate themselves in proximity to the religious world(s) they rail against.

As a result, their understanding of religion remains the stunted Enlightenment rehash that it is. And their reactionary attentions to events, particularly those involving Evangelicals (a neighbourhood in the City of God the Anglo-American atheists live in), devolve into banal moralizing about propriety, and disputation of biblical theology and injunction, and ultimately a recap of their foundational anti-metaphysics.*

Often all of this is over-laid on very brief/sparse accounts without much effort to seek out further explication or evidence to develop a fuller picture (never mind skepticism about sources). Of course, to be fair, since I’m referring primarily here to blog posts, necessary haste often doesn’t allow for deeper research, and extended analysis isn’t really what consumers of the genre are after (I’m not at least). But at the same time, consciously or unconsciously, most of the time the authors’ (or curators’) reflections on the latest outrage by the religious (as forgettable as most of the news) are the message – Xtns are crazy, the Bible is full of morally repugnant shit, god doesn’t exist –  and the event just the foil to brighten it.

But then sometimes (or often) one or more blogs present a story that begs for something more in its treatment, yet what’s offered by the bloggers and their peanut galleries takes me through seven levels of OFFS.  The evidence is plentiful and suggests a complexity such that anyone academically inclined ought to take a step back in order to try to answer the question, WTF is going on here?

Case in point. Yesterday, well known atheist Hemant Mehta of Friendly Atheist posted this video: 


Mehta’s commentary focusses on propriety (with a little snark of the usual atheist sort):

This is seriously despicable.

John McGlone‘s grandmother passed away on February 20th. Her funeral was held a few days later. Like you might expect, it took place at a church. A pastor delivered a eulogy. Nothing too out of the ordinary. It’s what the family wanted.

At the end of the eulogy, the pastor recited the typical “God loves you” bit. He said that nothing — not hardship, not distress, not peril, nothing — could ever separate us from the love of Jesus. (I know, I know, he’s wrong, but that’s not the point here.)

McGlone didn’t agree with the pastor because he believes sin separates us from Christ…

So instead of taking it up with the pastor privately, he began yelling out his theology from the back of the church hall.

During his own grandmother’s funeral.

He began preaching Christianity… to a room full of Christians… at the most inappropriate possible time… while wearing a long-sleeved shirt reading “TRUST JESUS” on the back. (As if none of them do.)

Start the video at the 1:38 mark below to hear the end of the pastor’s eulogy…

At around 4:00, family members urge McGlone to leave. “Think of the family,” they tell him. They call the police on him. Even the priest joins in. They all tell him to leave the church… but that only infuriates him further. He’s not in a real church, after all. He’s in a Catholic church.

No one can talk any sense into him because he’s brainwashed by his faith.

At 5:45, McGlone says, “Keep your hands off me, uncle!” It’s the first time I’ve ever heard that phrase and been on the uncle’s side.

At 5:57, someone starts to play the organ in an effort to Keyboard Cat him out of there. Or at least drown out his testimony. It does the trick.

McGlone leaves the building… but keeps preaching to anyone who will listen.

From the caption to his video, it sounds like McGlone was surprised to be invited to the funeral in the first place — as if he’s done something like this before and he couldn’t believe he was given another opportunity.

Talk about a regretful decision…

Commentors there, and on Youtube, fill out the standard atheist criticisms:

  • If you strip away the empathy one feels for the mourning family, and just look at the bare plot of this video, you basically see a group of people who believe in a mythological being who will protect them and help them being appalled that someone else believes in another version of their mythological being who will protect him and help him.
  • Mental Illness + Religion = DANGER DANGER DANGER.
    This guy is one bible verse away from a mass killing spree.
  • [In a long comment by Richard Wade also of Friendly Atheist] Looks like a paranoid disorder with delusions …. painful obsession with his “family” …. Religion gives him a language with which he expresses his disorder …. One of the saddest parts of this is at the very end where he writes that he has sent this video to the viewer privately, and asks them not to download and reload it to the internet, or to forward it to anyone whom they are not certain are “born of the holy spirit.”  That goes against his insistence that the word of god must be brought to all sinners.
  • This video just sickened me …. Also, while I abhor violence and wouldn’t want to have to deal with that situation at all, I still had to harbor the fantasy that as an atheist I wouldn’t feel any need to be particularly non violent because I was in a church and could just punch him in the face.
  • Add deadly weapons to the debate and you have the bloody, gory, history of Europe.
  • Had a similar experience when my grandmother died. The ceremony was largely absent of religion – it was held at the funeral home, not a church – but one family acquitance decided she had to loudly exclaim PRAISE JESUS after everything everyone said.
  • it’s clear in the U.S. that Christians would like nothing more than to silence the atheists, or anyone who disagrees with Christian beliefs for that matter.

And on it goes.

The Youtube commentary carries on in the same vein with the added bonus of McGlone’s responses.

One vid, one reposting with comment, a link to the main actor’s bio and religious group, two threads full of dozens of comments – rich stuff and if I were more ambitious I could spin it into a lengthy (lengthier) reflection. Sadly, not one actor directly or indirectly involved here has the wherewithal to pause and ask (and attempt to answer) WTF is going on here?

Let me (merely) raise some of the issues that I think come immediately to mind.

First, while I can accept it as perfectly understandable that many actors here take offense to McGlone’s disruption of what was undoubtedly an emotionally fraught occasion, I can’t help but be fascinated by the interjection and think immediately of Geertz’s “Ritual and Social Change: A Javanese Example,” and have to ask what’s all at play for this to happen? Family dynamics, socio-religious change, and American Xtn history (and what else?) were working at one or more levels. Sure, McGlone may be “batshit crazy,” but that seems beside the point (and never mind that isn’t in anyway established – the leap here by commentors is convenient if not lazy … and equally telling).

Obviously family issues are of major consequence here. If any of McGlone’s account of his family (linked above) is to be believed something almost Southern Gothic dwells within that clan. And that may be at the heart McGlone’s interruption of a ritual marking the familial rupture and meant to lead to social reintegration (to follow the Functionalists). McGlone’s presence and actions must have been a painful reminder of the irrepairable fissures in that family, and a threat to it. There’s something terribly bougie about Mehta’s and others’ tut tutting of the dramaz and arm-chair psychologizing … and terribly delusional in the face of all sorts of social change or strife facing the American family. Shit is fucked up and bullshit.

Next, the funeral itself is notable. Middle of the road Mainline Proddie stuff. At the risk of pedantry here, I think it’s pretty much unforgivable for Mehta (and some commentors it seems) to believe it’s Catholic when in fact it’s United Methodist (hence it’s important that the clergyman is not, in fact, a priest in the Catholic sense). As far as I can tell, this particular congregation is MOR Wesleyan and not of the more Evangelical sort. While the funerary banality of “nothing — not hardship, not distress, not peril, nothing — could ever separate us from the love of Jesus,” as Mehta reports it, is not unique to the Mainline, it’s worth pointing out that it is the comfortable pews of the Mainline that’ve seen the greatest loss of bums in them in the decades since the late 70s while Evangelical denominations have grown. No doubt, the treacle served as comfort to Middle America has a lot to do with this.** Rituals, and especially funerals, in such an environment are so without weight that it’s no surprise that they are now so often left to funeral homes … and no surprise that sometimes they can’t contain all the viscerality operative in the moment.

Finally – and I don’t think it’s too much to pursue this line of thought – we might locate this little drama in the larger historical and contemporary drama of American Protestant Xty itself. This is an intra- and inter-denominational story. The old joke goes, Methodists are Baptists who can read. Something of the source of this may be at work here. Back in the day the Methodist authorities decided that they couldn’t let any old open-air preacher wander America in their name so they systematized ordination to ensure theological consistency and orthodoxy. Long-short, a swath of Methodists marched down the long road to thorough domestication in the form of the UMC, part liturgical, part evangelical. McGlone seems to be almost a revivalist of the old open-air tradition. This strain is more prominent in some of the quasi- and non-denominational Evangelical churches that have sprung up in the last 30 or 40 years. In McGlone’s case, we also see a theological revival of a darker vision of the sinfulness of humankind. This is the stuff of a new Great Awakening very much in the spirit of Great Awakenings past. Pathological McGlone may be, but he’s working off of a template as old as America.***

A little off topic (for McGlone himself doesn’t seem to represent this explicitly) but I get the sense that an age-old contest is emerging among Evangelicals – the authority of experience vs. the authority of Scripture. If that really does come to the fore, that may reorient broad swaths of charismatic forms of Xty (for better or worse, who knows?). McGlone, I’d suggest, represents a kind of hybrid here, in the tradition of, say, Stephen Bradley of whom William James and Wayne Proudfoot and Ann Taves have much to say. A liberal American Xtn mysticism just might serve to pick apart the puritanism of Evangelicalism (or drive Millenials deeper into their apparent narcissism). That’s to say, a positive prophethood might come from it (or a dark cultish David Koresh one, or a New Agey self-affirming one).

Anyway, let’s wrap this up. I’m not sure who atheists are preachin’ to when they draw attention to the religious behaving badly (and I mean in the most venial ways, not kid diddling and curin’/damnin’ teh geyz and whatnot) and I’m not sure what they are trying to prove. It seems a tad hypocritical and unproductive to make their case on the basis of such things. A fundie sock in the jaw of conventional Xty is poor form while constant indignation about some of the religious, with which to tar all of the religious, isn’t? And an indictment of religion based upon inappropriate public behaviour is like adding committing an indignity to a human body to Luka Magnotta’s charge sheet for good measure.

And there’s something really hinky about tackling people like McGlone in theological terms, at least among a cohort who claim to be dedicated to the truth. They seem to accept readily, in some Proddie fashion, that there’s some ultimate standard within Xty against which McGlone can be held. Otherwise, it’s not a mode of analysis but is rather the co-authorship of the conflict written into the libretto of the little opera McGlone has composed. It’s explanatory power is severely limited if not completely compromised.****

But of course, this kind of engagement in theological debate is always disingenuous. It’s merely a shot to the ribs to set up the knock out punch which is the debate about the existence of god. Hard to say how everyone would respond if this event had turned into a Mexican standoff with the introduction of an embittered atheist relative who at this moment decided he or she had had enough of the anodyne religiosity of the majority of the family as well as the ravings of the fundie black sheep. Everything you need to know about atheists is summed up in their universal contempt for the first line of Alain de Botton’s odd little book, Religion for Atheists: “The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true.”

I’m not saying there’s anything fundamentally true about my reading of events, but I have at least tried to read the events closely. The atheists cannot say the same. And that should suggest to you that this worship of naturalistic methods of theirs is not all it appears to be – it is no less an ideological posture as it is an attempt to discern the truth of things. Social scientists are often no less guilty in this regard but they at least embrace means of self-reflection on this fact. Until ‘evangelical atheists (to employ an expression I take from Cris Campbell) can see themselves as anthropological subjects, and interrogate their movement and its expressions and its actions sociologically, then purify those as far as they are able of their blatantly exclusive political motivations, I don’t see how scholars of religion like me can engage them as anything but objects of scrutiny.

*There’s something extraordinarily organic about this loose pattern (as opposed to self-conscious), a product, it seems, of the nature of the internet beast that is the blog post and its comment thread.

**An aside, I find it peculiar how exercised some atheists get when they have to face such nominally Xtn stuff at funerals for their less than religious loved ones (more about this another time) for it seems like beating a dead horse, not to mention the injection of an odd emotionalism into ritualism …. And more later on the atheists’ folly of celebrating the decline of the Mainline in the US.

***Say what you want about today’s Religious Right. There’s no intrinsic connection between Neo-Liberal politics and American Xty. I all but guarantee that that Babylonian whoring is going to come to an abrupt end, and the GOP knows it. And there’s nothing to say that Evangelicalism, say among grown up Millenials, won’t turn on secular politics and culture in a critical and progressive way.

****This, I believe, is a dig against anthropology I’ve made before: viewing religious events on the ground, or in otherwise definable historical contexts, through normative lenses is to impose on them the very terms in which those events are intended to be understood.


Beats me where this interest and smidge of sympathy for the American religious came from. In the first instance, I blame Gary Wills, Robert Putnam and David Campbell.  In the end, I blame these guys:



1 Comment »

  1. Bret Alan said

    And you criticized my post for being long…

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