A Preacher Boy

23

by Richard Dawkins

Can you imagine what it might be like to be homeschooled by fundamentalist parents and then sent to Liberty “University” to round off your education? Can you imagine living in a world where the only argument you ever hear in favour of, or against, a point of view, is a bible quotation? And the only counter-argument is another bible quotation? What would it be like to be so brainwashed that “Every word of the bible is literally true” has the same axiomatic status in your mind as “Parallel lines never meet.? So brainwashed that it never even occurs to you to ask who actually wrote the bible and what their authority was for saying what they said? So brainwashed that you never reflect for a single moment that millions of others in the world have different scriptures and believe them just as strongly and with exactly the same (lack of) justification? Can you imagine a childhood spent in a state of total, unwavering conviction that your beloved grandfather is spit-roasting in eternal hell (along with the Roman Catholics), and that you’ll be headed the same way if you’re not careful?

This was Timothy Short’s early fate, and I close this memoir filled with admiration for his intellectual courage in finally breaking away from all that poisonous nonsense and becoming an atheist. A happy and fulfilled atheist, who yet never stopped loving his fundamentalist parents and even retains an affection for Liberty’s infamous founder Jerry Falwell. His autobiography makes for fascinating reading because he takes the reader by the hand, deep into the mind of a fundamentalist nutjob, and it’s like entering a strange alien world: a world where reason is despised , evidence feared and science actively denigrated. Also rivetting is the inside story of Liberty “University” with its weirdly oppressive prudery and its institutionalised system of Big Brotherish spying on the private lives of students.

And that other inside story, the saga of Short’s gradual recovery from his “education” – it really was a struggle – has a kind of epic quality. A bit like Julia Sweeney’s Letting Go of God. But Tim Short’s struggle was harder, because he had further to go: although its infant indoctrination is every bit as powerful and insidious, the Roman Catholicism of Julia’s upbringing was measurably less loony than the kind of Southern Baptism that usurped the innocent mind of Tim Short. Catholics don’t have to believe the bible is literally true: talking snakes, prophet-swallowing whales and all. Indeed there were times in Roman Catholic history when the bible was a forbidden book.

I was delighted to read that The God Delusion played a pivotal role in Tim Short’s conversion to reality. He undertook to read it as a test of his own faith, having been advised not to. He was confident in his ability to withstand any arguments that might be thrown at him, and he believed his “professors” who told him I was a poor philosopher. Significantly, the parts of the book that most troubled him were not the scientific parts and the refutation of the argument from design, No, what finally turned Tim Short was the full realisation of God’s appalling moral character, especially his incitement to genocide against the indigenous tribes who happened to make their living in the Lebensraum promised to the Israelites.

I suppose it’s not so very surprising that, for a biblical fundamentalist, the toppling of God should have to come from within the bible itself rather than from scientific data. How could God, the loving God of my upbringing, how could God do such appalling things, and so pitilessly, so ruthlessly? The particular brand of religious nuttiness of Tim’s teachers didn’t even allow him the getout that Jesus came to the rescue, came to reverse the horrors of the Old Testament. Jesus himself, for those freaks, was personally implicated in everything Yahweh ever did, including slaughtering every man, woman, child, ox and ass – excepting only virgin young women “which you may keep for yourselves.”

Tim Short comes across as a likeable young man. His relationship with his father is touching, as is the warmth with which he passes the affection (though not, of course, the indoctrination) on to his beloved baby son. He even manages to retain some regard for Liberty “University”, including the unspeakable Jerry Falwell, though it’s genuinely hard to see why. The place comes across as appalling in every particular, but that is my judgment from Short’s objective account of the details,  not his personal opinion. The loyalty of an alumnus shines through, and it gives added confidence in the reliability of his evidence for the prosecution. As does the obvious reluctance with which he finally let go of God, and the cognitive dissonance with which he tried to make excuses for him.

As it happens, Tim Short was a student at Liberty at the time of my own brief encounter with the place. I was actually giving a lecture at the neighbouring Randolph Macon Women’s College. Tim and his fellow Liberty students were encouraged by their “professor” to go along and hear me. Not to heckle: hey were encouraged to be polite and respectful in their questioning, but they must on no account admit to being from Liberty (some of them nevertheless did). And they turned out in force, filling the front two rows of the Randolph Macon auditorium and dominating the questions after my lecture. Respectful indeed they were. And the challenges that they posed to me were almost embarrassingly easy to deal with. You can hear the whole thing here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zPsmYWbY-VA

 

Tim Short himself missed the occasion:-

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Tim continued to wrestle with himself and eventually, after a mighty struggle, came to the right conclusion. He emerged the other side, an atheist. Then of course he had to deal with his grieving parents. And that’s a moving story in itself.

This book was published in 2011 and I’m sorry I only just got around to reading it. Nevertheless I recommend it, if only because it is a revealing insight into the workings of a mind made alien by pernicious indoctrination, and a damning exposée of the internal workings of America’s leading institution dedicated to such indoctrination. The editing of the book is poor to non-existent, and it’s a pity it wasn’t taken up by a better publisher. The cultural allusions and similies are such as to bewilder a non-American reader but that’s OK: who cares, after all, whether the Phillies are a football team or a boy band? The point is that this is a moving memoir (paradoxically the more moving because of the poor quality of the editing and publication-values)  by a decent and intelligent young man, who struggled courageously against the effects of an appallingly low grade education and emerged triumphant – and happy – the other side.

 

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23 COMMENTS

  1. so timely
    about a fortnight ago
    i was kicking a ball around with my son-in-law and grandson (6)
    on a common patch of grass in our townhouse community
    another resident and his 5 yr old son (judah) joined us
    judah was being christian home-schooled by his mum we were told
    the two boys hit it off and headed to nearby playground
    within 5 minutes our grandson was calling judah judas
    mistakenly and innocently (he’d heard the name somewhere)
    when they came back judah whispered to his father
    who then told us what he had whispered
    judah had told our grandson about jesus and the bible
    father was very proud of his son

  2. @OP – Not to heckle: hey were encouraged to be polite and respectful in their questioning, but they must on no account admit to being from Liberty (some of them nevertheless did). And they turned out in force, filling the front two rows of the Randolph Macon auditorium and dominating the questions after my lecture. Respectful indeed they were. And the challenges that they posed to me were almost embarrassingly easy to deal with.

    Coming to challenge in a science debate with professionals, armed only with false confidence, a bible for reference, and pseudo-science creationists for tutors, really is entering an intellectual contest unarmed, incredulous, and laughably superficial in intellect and understanding!

    Dogmatic bigotry and ignorance can be worn confidently with arrogant pride, but will be transparently laughable in front of an educated audience!

  3. A happy and fulfilled atheist, who yet … retains an affection for Liberty’s infamous founder Jerry Falwell…

    Some kind of Stockholm-syndrome symptom, perhaps?

    BTW, I hope investigative journalists are keeping a close eye on Falwell’s son, the current prez. of Liberty “University”, recently appointed by Prez. Trump to lead a rather shady “Education Task Force”: Evangelical leader Falwell: It was Steve Bannon’s idea that I lead education task force

  4. Cantaz #3
    Apr 10, 2017 at 11:29 am

    I hope investigative journalists are keeping a close eye on Falwell’s son, the current prez. of Liberty “University”,

    Well he does meet Trump’s normal criteria for public office.

    . . . . The most unsuitable candidate for the job, clueless, anti-science, and anti-education – with a grasp of the subject area which is off the bottom of the scale!

  5. I grew up with fundamentalism too backed by creationism. It took me a long time to extract myself from its insiduous web not helped much by science teachers (state school these) who didn’t seem to know much about anything. I remember asking my Year 12 teacher why atomic nuclei remain stable given they are made up of protons and neutrons. He did not give an explanation of the strong force. The answer instead was: “I don’t know. They just do.” My whole life I never heard any debunking of creationism. It seemed no one could challenge them. Until one day, in the library, I came across a book written by scientists whose whole project was to explain why creationism is so much bullshit. That book changed my life.

  6. “Out of all the huts the villagers were reluctantly emerging—the children first: they were inquisitive and unfrightened. The men and women had the air already of people condemned by authority—authority was never wrong.”

  7. Article by Richard Dawkins:
    Tim Short . . . even manages to retain some regard for Liberty “University”, including the unspeakable Jerry Falwell, though it’s genuinely hard to see why.

    This is not really to be wondered at. While Mr Short was a devout Christian, he experienced the love and support of the Christian fellowship, including the Christian institute of higher studies that he attended. The positive experiences of that period of his life will never leave him, even if he now sees that during that period he wasted much valuable time, resources and energy on the false belief-system that underpinned that fellowship. Although the personal relationships he had with people in that period have now been changed by his change of outlook and in particular by his repudiation of that Christian belief-system, whatever respect, love, affection and regard shared in those relationships remains, albeit now in many cases poignantly sharpened with accompanying feelings such as loss, disappointment, grief and sorrow. Still, the happy times Mr Short had in his Christian days will always remain those happy times he had, regardless of the difference between his situations of then and now.

  8. Garrick #7
    While Mr Short was a devout Christian, he experienced the love and support of the Christian fellowship

    Yeah that religious delusional drug is good; flower power – everything is beautiful. For me the hell fear was debilitating. At any rate, it’s best to overcome.

  9. fadeordraw #9
    For me the hell fear was debilitating. At any rate, it’s best to overcome.

    No dispute there. My point was only that ex-religionists who were once fully immersed in the culture of the relevant religious community naturally retain the memories and emotional effects of the naturally positive experiences of their religious lives after they have repudiated the religion and are working to overcome the ill effects of indoctrination and religious practices. The fear of Hell, for example, has made neurotics and manipulable pawns of countless numbers of people; and that is a good example of the intellectual and emotional damage done to people through religious indoctrination of children. Yet, even in a community whose aim is to protect its members from the jaws of Hell, one experiences the natural benefits of growing up in family and society, forming friendships and so on. Even if apostasy results in the loss of all those connections in one’s ongoing life, one cannot but retain the memories and the emotional benefits of the positive experiences of that abandoned life.

  10. My point was only that ex-religionists who were once fully immersed
    in the culture of the relevant religious community naturally retain
    the memories and emotional effects of the naturally positive
    experiences of their religious lives after they have repudiated the
    religion and are working to overcome the ill effects of indoctrination
    and religious practices.

    This is abusive, these words aim to reinforce affiliation from an institutional point of view, when someone has written an autobiography (which means only the person can speak about his experience as individual). Liberty institution would better instutionalize iniciation rituals for that purpose, so hat they would warrant student´s affiliation and fullfil a sense of belonging.

  11. maria melo #11
    This is abusive, these words aim to reinforce affiliation from an institutional point of view, when someone has written an autobiography. . . .

    No, Maria; though that is a reaction I have sometimes come across from antireligionists (of whom I am one myself) when I have mentioned or tried to explain something not evil but even good or positive in a religious culture. In this particular case I have merely tried to point out how Prof. Dawkins’s apparent surprise expressed in the above article, that Tim Short retained some regard for his theological alma mater, might not be so surprising after all. It ill behoves you to suggest that my words aim “to reinforce affiliation from an institutional point of view” without at least setting out how I am supposed to have done so. That smacks of prejudice — not a fault peculiar to religious people but very much a common foible of humanity. It is as though, because I was not expressing disdain or hatred or contempt for religion, I must have been seeking somehow to reinforce its value. Such fanciful logic does not even begin to connect with the rather mundane matter I was actually referring to.

    Having myself repudiated a religion in which I had been thoroughly indoctrinated, I speak, I suppose, from my own experience on this matter; for it seems obvious that, even in a religious way of life, most of what one experiences in life as a human being is the same as people outside that religion experience, and what causes much of the unhappiness associated with religious indoctrination is a small number of basic decisions and commitments, deliberate or not, premised on religious superstitions. Hence, it should not be surprising that an apostate may retain certain positive memories and emotional connections with the community he or she has had to exit. This rather common-sense observation of mine deserved no further comment, and was made only to cast a little light on something that seemed to puzzle some who saw religion apparently in unrealistically black and white terms. Perhaps another way of addressing the same question is to remind people that a religion is not merely a set of beliefs or skills, similar to such conceptually defined systems as dance-routines, musical scores and scientific hypotheses and theories, but, much more significantly, a real-life culture that embraces the whole outlook and manner of living of a community of people.

  12. I have merely tried to point out how Prof. Dawkins’s apparent surprise
    expressed in the above article, that Tim Short retained some regard
    for his theological alma mater

    It seems the graduate student Timothy Short reports in the page above that Prof. Dawkins was perturbed with the dated dinossaur fossil replica displayed in the hallway of Liberty´s University, dated less than 6.000 years, and adviced students to attend a proper university

    Indeed, please, check the right of students in the Portuguese Contitutional Law (specially what I put in bold text), no wonder Prof. Dawkins was perturbed, a university is not a Monastery aimed to religious practise, but to the admnistration of quality knowledge.

    STUDENT´S RIGHTS

    “Students’ rights are universal, guaranteeing equal opportunities for all, regardless of the year and course attended. They should be provided with democratic and quality education, taking into account the national needs of qualified staff and raising the educational, cultural and scientific level of the country.
    The rights of students are fundamentally related to:
    (A) general training rights;
    B) rights related to access and frequency;
    C) the right to complementary activities;
    D) civic and social rights.
    All students have the right to:
    A) Up-to-date and quality education, exercised with respect for the rules and principles of the Constitution of the Portuguese Republic and other applicable legislation;
    B) Support for the study developed, in addition to the teaching time, in appropriate spaces, by the teachers, as well as the use of material and study materials, in particular bibliographic material, in digital and / or computerized support;

    C) To benefit from educational supports and supplements, in particular those granted by the School Social Services;
    D) Assessment of knowledge carried out in an impartial manner, in accordance with the education given and with clear knowledge of the objective criteria on which it is based;
    E) Access to complementary activities recognized and organized by the Institute, with a view to their integral training, in particular in the cultural, scientific, sporting and recreational aspects, which should be made available to them in accordance with the means available in the Institution;
    F) Submit, to the competent bodies, a complaint or appeal against decisions on matters of administration, teaching and evaluation or other matters of interest to them, related to their status and in which they are involved, in accordance with the general statutory principles;
    (G) special schemes covering them, in accordance with the legislation in force and the specific rules of the Institute;
    H) Effective supervision by the counselor (s) in academic acts that require it;

    I) Participate in the management bodies of ISCAL (Board of Directors, Assembly of Representatives, Pedagogical Council);
    J) To create and maintain a Student Association within ISCAL and to govern and administer it according to the respective legislation.”

  13. For that matter, nothing would be better than a scientist as Minister of Education, and, of course no University could ministrate such scientific illiteracy as dinossaurs replica dated 6.000 years, that would not be accepted and I am afraid the course would never be approved in first place to open to students (Universities should never become a free market of ignorance).

  14. I have an ex-student who is graduating from “Liberty” University this year. She has relentlessly e-mailed me for three years, extracting the “atheist” view for discussion in her “classes”. I am not going to spend my time shitting on Liberty for the reasons that you all will post (and all fittingly and obvious). I will tell you a story that is most representative of this pseudo-college.

    This kid sat in my AP biology class for 10 months. Unbeknownst to me, she put a tick mark in her note book whenever I said “evolution”. At the end of the year, she let me know that I had said “evolution” some crazy number of times. So, I added up our total class time (minutes) together and divided it by the number of evolution references she recorded. It turned out that I said “evolution” every 4 minutes or so.

    The kids made a t-shirt to commemorate our time together and it read “McCusker’s AP Biology; evolution every 4 minutes”. This kid did not order a shirt because she was FORBIDDEN to wear it on LIBERTY university’s campus. Sometimes the “hints” are obvious. BTW, mind the FACT that it was founded by a hateful anti-semite who, by today’s standards is/was so bigoted that he’d be dismissed…
    LIBERTY indeed.

  15. crookedshoes #15
    Apr 15, 2017 at 10:10 pm

    LIBERTY indeed.

    We know that students are highly regimented and restricted at “Liberty (so called) University”, so the only real liberty there, is the liberty they take with facts, and in the presentation of those pseudoscience “alternative facts” beloved by Trump appointees! !

  16. maria melo #14
    Apr 15, 2017 at 5:49 pm

    For that matter, nothing would be better than a scientist as Minister of Education,

    That is one of the differences between England and the USA.

    In the UK the MP (on whose campaigns I used to work), who chaired the committee working on the “Schools Standards Framework Act”, which set up our modern school structure, had an electronics degree! Unfortunately religious organisations also had inputs into this act.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/School_Standards_and_Framework_Act_1998

    He also established the Parliamentary ICT committee which promoted computer education.

  17. What I´ve came about to know now is that Carl Sagan received (after his death) through Ann Druyan in 1998, by the inniciative of Mariano Gago as Minister a honorary nobiliatic medal for having attacted the interest for science in a large part of young population.

  18. I’m almost halfway through the book, and Richard’s comment that it’s poorly-written is an understatement. I don’t know how he got past the first chapter, let alone got something out of this book. Maybe he’s better than I am at handling bad writing and getting to the fundamental point and getting something out of it.

    There’s a great book called An Unlikely Disciple by Kevin Roose. This book is by a student at Brown who hails from a very liberal family– and who spends a semester at Liberty “undercover”. Check it out!

  19. and Richard’s comment that it’s poorly-written is an understatement

    where does Prof. Dawkins make such statement?

    I can tell you I know at least one person that seems to dislike The Selfish Gene, shall I accept that no one else does?

    what could possibly someone expect when reading an autobiographic book other than it´s authenticity?

  20. InYourFace,

    Kevin Roose though is a Quaker and they are irredeemably nice people. There is also honour amongst theists. The ghastly plan of Liberty to consolidate a childhood indoctrination into an indoctrinating adulthood and parenthood, does need to be called out, for all the surprising niceness of folk.

  21. Great vídeo published yesterday.

    https://www.facebook.com/neildegrassetyson/?fref=hovercard
    “We don´t have that option”

    “I offer this four-minute video on “Science in America” containing what may be the most important words I have ever spoken.
    As always, but especially these days, keep looking up.”
    —Neil deGrasse Tyson

    (Unless, Universities decide to accept some amount of money from Templeton Foundation, but that still is irrelevant)

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