Saturday, November 24, 2007


I finally watched Jesus Camp yesterday, what I can only describe as a first class mental rape of children. In a summer camp in North Dakota, Pentacostal minister Becky Fisher uses the most devoutly impeccable internal logic to indoctrinate children with fundamentalist religion. The children become 9-year-old preachers, bless and converse with a cutout of George Bush, learn about the sanctity of life from a growling demagogue-like preacher, sing songs about Jesus and life in front of the Supreme Court in the middle of a freezing day in Washington D.C., and writhe on the floor and cry profusely when they pray to Christ. They induct themselves into the Army of Christ, worship the Christian Flag along with the US flag, and of course make fun of evolution. They are mentored by the growling pro-life preacher, combative overweight Becky Fisher and creepy pastor Ted Haggard (who is now "using tools to embrace his heterosexual side").

But who are the biggest culprits here? Not the children certainly. And not really Becky Fisher, kooky as she may be. The real culprits are the parents, who home-school their children and indoctrinate them with religion, rally them against science and evolution and fill their minds with intolerance against homosexuality and abortion. Richard Dawkins says that bringing up a child in a particular religion when they can't think for themselves and decide is tantamount to child abuse. This is child molestation and exploitation of the worst kind.

I would not be writing about Jesus Camp if it simply indicated a small misguided cult of people who mentally abuse kids and revel in bigotry every summer. As everyone who reads this blog knows, the opinions of this cult to a large extent reflect those of 40 million evangelicals in the United States who can swing the election and change the face of this country possibly forever. They can, and they are changing it.

What can secularists do against such indoctrination? Secularism and atheism by their very nature don't indoctrinate. I attended a megachurch last Sunday on the insistence of my friend. It was in an upper-class part of town. Almost all the cars in the parking lot were BMWs, Mercedes and Lexuses. The church must be getting millions from these wealthy patrons. I found the experience interesting, and a tad unsettling to say the least. The church essentially was a huge auditorium with a seating capacity of 3000. One could tell that the hall was overfilled, since people were standing at the back. The entire one hour service was one big rock concert. The preachers were dressed in leather jackets, the orchestration and production and choreography of the event were superb and slick. It was like attending a Broadway show for free; who wouldn't like it? The huge stage was flanked by two equally huge high-def TV screens, where images of the performers were interspersed with images of crosses, Jesus and rivers and valleys. The music was loud and the strobe lighting was unnerving and enveloped you with that kind of surreal miasma that you experience in a disco. At one point, there was a baptism in which a young starry-eyed woman was dipped into a tank of shimmering water. There were some very clever special effects, with an uncannily real-looking image of the pastor projected at one point on the stage; after a while, the real human being walked out from behind the screen and had a conversation with his virtual counterpart. I could not but help think of the mass hysterical atmosphere manufactured in public gatherings that puts the audience into a kind of stupor in which they will all believe improbable things encouraged by thousands of others believing them. As Oscar Wilde said, religion is essentially that set of opinions which survives.

Clearly, this was religious marketing at its best, designed to attract, groom and enrapture the next generation of young religious people. Religion in the US is as much a part of the free market economy as women's hair products. What can secularists do to fight such indoctrination? It's simply too overwhelming in its sights and sounds. As I mentioned before, secularists are not going to have such indoctrination of their own, where they try to preach their ideas as if they were a religion.

I don't know the answer to this question and I even doubt if anything can be done at all; this reinforces what we can all see as an increasing downward spiral of this country into ignorance fuelled by the consummate marriage of religion and politics. But one answer lurked surprisingly in that disturbing movie Jesus Camp. The movie has all these activities at the camp interspersed with a Christian radio commentator who is extremely pained and disturbed by what he sees as the corruption and radicalised politicising of religion. He implores Becky Fisher in an interview to reconsider the fundamentalist nature of her activities. Naturally, she does not back down.

But I realised that it is people like him that secularists want on their side. And this is one of the problems that I see with the kind of outspoken atheism that Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens espouse. It's not a question of whether they are right or wrong. Of course they are, and it's really great that they wrote these books. The question is whether theirs is the most practical approach. If their writings serve to mobilise people who are on the fence and "almost" atheists, well and good, and I don't doubt they will. But it won't be in our best interests to alienate moderate Christians who think evangelical Christianity is corrupting their faith. We need them on our side for a very simple reason; they are the ones who can fight the extremists on their own turf. They can quote from scripture. They can lament that Jesus Christ would have sternly disapproved of the extremists' methods and scold them. The extremists are much more likely if at all to listen to these moderate Christians. We do absolutely need people like Dawkins and Hitchens. But we also need more moderate secularists who can befriend moderate Christians, even if they don't agree with their faith.

However, no matter what happens in the future, the current scenario is depressing by any standards. The fact that the kind of extremism depicted in Jesus Camp is embraced by enough religious people to be taken seriously itself says everything. I always think that two factors are going to lead to this country's downfall when it comes; the marriage of politics and fundamentalist religion, and the indifference to growing environmental problems. I only ponder which one of the two factors is more important and I have to say that these days I find the former one much more plausible, although I am sure my opinion will oscillate. We can all hope that none of these factors lead to the demise of America. But none of us currently have good reason to think otherwise. Jesus Camp simply fortifies such a belief.

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Blogger Vivek Gupta said...

I shudder to think that if this is what is possible in the 'land of the free and home of the brave' then what would really be going on in the madrassas of Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Is there any hope of mankind ever overcoming religious fundamentalism?

2:25 PM  
Blogger Kristine said...

I recently saw the film too (and can't get it out of my mind). Did you notice the rocking motion of the children as they blathered that glossolalia? I was reminded of the kids in the madrassas, rocking over their Korans as they chanted.

I also suspect that Becky Fisher is a closet lesbian - not that it matters to me - but she's so puritanical and weird, very masculine as my boyfriend noted, and an evangelical with no husband, no kids - something's up with that.

I couldn't believe the lifesized cut-out of GWB with the flag draped behind it! Creepy as hell.

11:19 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Vivek: That's a good question. Sometimes I think there are cycles of religious belief and relatively non-religious secularism. I sincerely think that religion is on the rise again, but this time it threatens to cause a lot of harm. So secularism needs to put up a good fight, no doubt about that.

7:55 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Kristine: Quite right, it does remind one of those zombie-like kids in the madrassas. And you make an interesting point about Fisher's sexuality; she does look like that. It could very well be true; after all as we know, projection is an accepted psychological phenomenon, and many homophobic people harbour deep latent homosexuality.

7:58 AM  
Blogger Deepa said...

Ashutosh, this is an excellent post.
I agree with your statement that you need moderate Christians on your side. But I do not think that it will help much because I believe that the country is headed for a period of darkness, science & technology-wise and that looks inevitable.

However, like all things, good and bad, this too shall pass. And maybe some other country finding a cure for Parkinsons using stem cell research might be just the inspiration. We can hope :-)

6:50 PM  

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